Breakaway to Recovery: NHL Icon Grant Fuhr Story

Let's Talk Addiction & Recovery Podcast
Senior Man Hiking Trail

Early in his National Hockey League hall-of-fame career, goalie Grant Fuhr realized his cocaine use had crossed the line. He needed help. But was he ready to face the underlying causes? Listen in as Fuhr talks with host William C. Moyers about the soul-searching work of addiction rehab and what it took to get himself back in the game. "There's nothing easy about asking for help," says the five-time Stanley Cup champ. "But treatment definitely works, and recovery is a phenomenal thing."

Treatment definitely works and recovery is a phenomenal thing. It'll give you a new lease on life.

Grant Fuhr

0:00:00 William Moyers
Here we again, a new season in our award-winning series of Let's Talk podcasts. Produced by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and brought to you, our audience interested in topics from substance use prevention and research, to treatment for addiction, and recovery from it. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. Welcome, thanks for joining us. Today is an unprecedented moment for me. I've interviewed a lot of people over the years, but never an athlete whose talents and achievements landed him in a Hall of Fame. Specifically the National Hockey League's Hall of Fame. Grant Fuhr was a six-time all-star goalie who won the Stanley Cup championship five times with the Edmonton Oilers. In 2003, he became the first black player elected to the NHL's Hall of Fame. And I am certain that we could talk about his exploits on the ice minding the nets for our entire show today. But that's not what this interview is really all about. Because it is what Grant has accomplished off the ice that brings him to us today. Welcome, Grant, and thank you for being here!

0:01:22 Grant Fuhr
Oh it's my pleasure William.

0:01:24 William Moyers
What in the world is a guy like you, a Hall of Famer, doing on a podcast that's talking about addiction and recovery?

0:01:32 Grant Fuhr
Well, fortunately at one time in my life I used to be young. [Moyers laughs] And with being young comes making some bad life choices. And along the way I managed to make a few bad life choices and get tied up in the addiction end of the world. And finally made a decision that I needed to get my life straightened around. And, hence, a quick trip to Betty Ford.

0:01:56 William Moyers
Well that's the abridged version of the story. Let's go back [Grant laughs] and just talk a little bit about your—your love of hockey. When did you know you were a good hockey player?

0:02:08 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I don't know if you ever really know you're a good hockey player, but I loved the game from the time I was four years old. So it was kind of my lifeblood that it was something that I focused on, something I enjoyed, something I could do with my friends, with my dad. So it was something that was in my blood.

0:02:25 William Moyers
Did you always wanna be a goalie?

0:02:28 Grant Fuhr
The strange part is yes. [Moyers laughs] I think as a kid I saw the equipment when I was four and it looked kinda neat and nobody else wanted to try it on. So, I fell in love with the equipment and the fact that I could play all the time. So for me that was the biggest attraction.

0:02:45 William Moyers
So you're skating, you're playing goalie, and you're rising up through the ranks. Tell us about that big moment when you made it to the Big Leagues.

0:02:54 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I was fortunate enough to get drafted from Victoria to Edmonton in 1981. So a couple of days ago. Where I got the opportunity to move home to play professional hockey. And it's every kid's dream to play in the National Hockey League but it's an even bigger dream to be able to do it at home in front of friends and family.

0:03:14 William Moyers
Yeah, so you were living and skating the dream, and yet there was an underbelly to the whole thing. You started to use substances. Talk about how that evolved.

0:03:24 Grant Fuhr
You know what happens when you play on a successful team, all of a sudden there's vices that go around the outside that people don't realize. You have success, everybody wants to be a part of you. Well when everybody wants to be a part of you, different things are presented in front of you. And at that time I was oh, 23, 24 years old and at 23, 24, sometimes you don't make the best life decisions. So, you go to parties, all of a sudden you get talked into trying something you shouldn't try. And for me, it kinda started that way and then I lost my father in 1986. Where I think I was would have been 24 years old at that time. Which kinda set things in a little bit of a downward spiral. And it was kind of at that point I decided that we needed to get it figured out before it really gets bad.

0:04:14 William Moyers
Had substances, Grant, had you used alcohol when you were younger and did you have any problems or did it just suddenly hit you like a on the side of the head?

0:04:24 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I've never been a big drinker. I mean I—I enjoyed a glass of rum here or there. And wasn't a beer drinker. Didn't really like anything else. And for me, cocaine was kinda the drug of choice. The first one that was kinda presented to me, so never a marijuana smoker. So that—that was kind of what first got presented and kinda where everything started and ended.

0:04:49 William Moyers
And of course that was in the 80's when cocaine was considered a quote "recreational" drug. Did you know that what was happening off the ice was going to become the issue that it became on the ice?

0:05:06 Grant Fuhr
You know what, the fun part was it was never really an issue on the ice. But you also had to be wary of what was going on off the ice. And you're starting to keep later and later hours. At some point, looking at it, we figured out that if I didn't get it under control, it was gonna start to affect what was going on on the ice. And that was the biggest fear for me was one, if you go get help, the National Hockey League at that time had a no drug policy. So they were there to punish you. So, the fact that I managed to slide away and get help later—a couple years later—I got punished for that. So that was the disappointing part of the whole deal. But at the same time, it made me a better person.

0:05:51 William Moyers
Wow! But—but it wasn't easy then, I mean when do you think Grant you became aware that you needed to do something about your use of substances?

0:06:07 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I had young kids at that time. And I think watching your kids grow up, it was a time for me to take a definite look at myself. And I think the big wake-up call is sometimes you gotta look at yourself and see if you're happy with yourself. And for all the success that we were having on the ice, all the fun we were having and everything, it turned out I wasn't happy with me as a person. So, it was a good thing for me to get a chance to get a look at myself and see what was going on inside me.

0:06:43 William Moyers
Yeah, yeah. And what was going on, Grant, if you don't mind me asking? What was going on inside of you beyond just your use of substances?

0:06:51 Grant Fuhr
You know what, there's pressures that go with playing at home. Losing my dad really hurt. So things like that. It was a nice way to just get away from everything. And I think it became more and more comfortable to get away from it that way. And that was—that was the problem. Is that it just got more comfortable and easier and easier.

0:07:11 William Moyers
Was it hard or easy for you to finally ask for help?

0:07:17 Grant Fuhr
Oh it was definitely hard. There's no question about it. There's nothing easy about that. And the fact that I had lots of really good friends that helped and supported me with it. And that made it a little easier. But at the same time, nobody wants to really look deep inside themselves. And I think some of the kids that I talk to nowadays have that same issue. Is they really—nobody really wants to look deep inside their soul. To see what's there. 'Cause sometimes it's a scary place. [Moyers nods throughout.]

0:07:45 William Moyers
So it was more than just simply stopping the use of a substance, there was much more to your treatment and to your recovery process than just saying no.

0:07:56 Grant Fuhr
You know what, the just saying no part is probably the easiest side of it. The hardest side is the underlying causes. You find the underlying cause and you've gotta like yourself. And I think that's one of the hardest things is you've gotta take a look deep inside yourself and find a reason to like yourself first and foremost. Because it's—it's like they say, if you're not ready to get help, you're not gonna get help. And it doesn't matter how it's presented to you, you've gotta wanna be able to do it.

0:08:26 William Moyers
So Grant, what was it like being gone, I don't know how long you were gone from the team for—how long were you away?

0:08:33 Grant Fuhr
I had originally been suspended for a year. But it got commuted back to 40 games. So probably five months.

0:08:42 William Moyers
So you were suspended and they—so was that your bottom?

0:08:47 Grant Fuhr
That was probably the bottom and it was probably couldn't have come at a worse time.

0:08:52 William Moyers

0:08:53 Grant Fuhr
Because I had just gotten out of rehab. So one year trying to get your life back in order, get back on top of things, and yet, they've just pulled the rug out from underneath you. So that—getting through that, I knew I'd be all right. 'Cause the world couldn't have got any worse at that time.

0:09:12 William Moyers
Yeah that's interesting. So you sorta had your bottom after you found recovery!

0:09:16 Grant Fuhr
Yeah after I finally got life straightened around where I was happy with it, they pulled the rug out from under me again. So, it was another—if anything it was a really good test to see where I was at.

0:09:30 William Moyers
And where were you?

0:09:32 Grant Fuhr
Fortunately I was in a good place. 'Cause it coulda gone sideways really quickly.

0:09:38 William Moyers
What was it like walking back into the locker room to see your teammates, some of whom had been there when you left and some of whom probably had moved on and yet you had new teammates—what was it like going back onto the ice?

0:09:49 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I had the greatest teammates in the world. I got a chance to see most of 'em would stop by, see me at home. I'd run into 'em, go over to their place, hang out. So they never really weren't around. It was just that I couldn't go to the rink and practice. And it was hard missing the game but it was phenomenal to have teammates around all the time. Even if you couldn't be on the ice with 'em. But when I finally got back on the ice, it was like being at home. Right? It was my comfort zone where I was happiest and it was like completing the picture again.

0:10:23 William Moyers
What was it like though having to deal with the media? I mean you were in the public spotlight not only because you were a really good hockey player and a net minder, but because you had been suspended! You couldn't have one without having the other and then you had to step back onto the ice and into the public limelight. How did that work?

0:10:42 Grant Fuhr
Well, we decided to face it head-on. Which was not very much fun. And I sat and did call-in shows on the radio and that sorta thing. And people had certain opinions. Some were supportive, some not so supportive. So, but it was a way for me to come to grips with everything and know that some people basically are gonna hate you regardless. At the same time, it made me feel good about me. So, and once it's out in the open, there's nothing to hide from.

0:11:14 William Moyers
And you become a beacon of hope and an access portal for people like you who need help. Talk about your commitment to helping other people through your own recovery over all these years.

0:11:26 Grant Fuhr
Well you know what, I take great pride in helping kids. [Moyers nods] I mean I think that's where a lot of it starts. And the fact that I have the opportunity, I've got a bit of a platform where I can speak to kids. And with kids I've got a little bit of credibility having gone through it. And there's nothing that kids wanna hear less than somebody that's never been through it trying to tell them how things work, how they're gonna feel, that sorta thing. Whereas having been through it and almost losing everything—

0:11:55 William Moyers

0:11:56 Grant Fuhr
—Gives me a little bit of credibility with the kids. [Moyers nods]

0:11:59 William Moyers
And what about beyond the kids to other athletes? Whether they be hockey players or football players, baseball players—do you share your story with them and let them know the challenges that can come from being an athlete who's highly paid, successful?

0:12:15 Grant Fuhr
You know what, I've had some athletes from hockey, from other sports, that have reached out to see what it's like to go through. Because there's still a stigma around sports. [Moyers nods] That and players don't wanna get help. Because one, they're afraid of the media that you get with it. Two, there's don't trust the leagues. So, having been through it, the good, the bad, and the ugly, players will actually reach out to former players that have been through the process.

0:12:44 William Moyers
We know of course in the National Hockey League specifically there's been a lot of media attention in the last few years around the use of pain medications to help players you know overcome either acute injuries or those chronic issues that come along with being on the ice and getting hit all the time. Is there an opportunity for you to share your own experiences with the League to help educate the League, the owners and the players?

0:13:13 Grant Fuhr
We're hoping to get to that point.

0:13:15 William Moyers

0:13:16 Grant Fuhr
And there's been some conversation here and there. But at the same time, there's still a lot more to be had. I mean I think that's the biggest thing. And I know, having gone through two knee replacements now, a shoulder replacement, that it's easy for them to hand out pain medication. And in professional sports, it's about you being able to play and performance. So, sometimes players kinda get lost in the shuffle where they're not the first priority, it's what can you do for me. And I think some of the premise has to be taken off of that where you've gotta look at the players as people.

0:13:55 William Moyers
Mmm. People who are vulnerable.

0:13:58 Grant Fuhr
They are vulnerable. I mean, you look at your job, your job's based on performance. And it used to be, if you couldn't do it, somebody'd come in and take your job. It's a little better now, but at the same time, guys are still worried that way.

0:14:11 William Moyers
Sure. Sure. In closing, Grant, let me just ask you this. I know there're gonna be some people who tune in because they wanna hear from you, but there're gonna be some people who tune in because they're struggling. What is your message for somebody who might be listening to this podcast? What is your message to them?

0:14:28 Grant Fuhr
I think the biggest thing is if you're struggling, you gotta speak to somebody. And you're not gonna be able to do it on your own contrary to how a lot of people feel is that nobody's there for them, you kinda get stuck in your own little hole in the wall where just speak to somebody. You gotta—that's the first step.

0:14:48 William Moyers
And treatment works and recovery is possible.

0:14:52 Grant Fuhr
Treatment definitely works and recovery is a phenomenal thing. It'll give you a new lease on life.

0:14:58 William Moyers
Well thank you for sharing that new lease on life with us and our audience today. Grant Fuhr, a championship goalie, Hall of Fame, recovery advocate, and somebody who gives back to the mission of Hazelden Betty Ford. Thank you, Grant Fuhr. [turns to camera] On behalf of my colleague, the Executive Producer of this podcast, Lisa Stangl, as well as the entire crew from Blue Moon Productions, we want to remind you to stay safe, stay healthy, stay the course, and keep tuning in to these Let's Talk podcasts. Another one comes your way soon. Thanks everyone! See you next time.

Want to learn more? Select a Tag to explore a particular topic or browse articles.