What makes Stephen Johns’ cross-country rollerblading trip so evocative is that the wound inspiring it is still fresh.
It’s not a painstakingly planned tour, set up months in advance, showcasing someone who has moved on from the darkness of depression following major head trauma. Now-former Dallas Stars defenseman Johns, who announced his retirement from the NHL last week due to post-concussion symptoms, is still going through his dark period. His decision to rollerblade from hometown Wampum, Penn., to the Pacific Coast came when he was in the middle of suffering, not past it. He’s diving into his journey on a whim, eager to share his healing in real time, hoping the shared experience will help others who struggle as he does with mental health.
Johns took a break from his big skate to catch up with The Hockey News and share some raw details of his adventure and the experiences that led him to embark on it.
THE HOCKEY NEWS: What led to you making the decision to take this journey? Had you thought about it for a while?
JOHNS: Three weeks ago I found myself spiralling out of control again. I’ve been pretty open about my dark thoughts and that path and saw myself spiralling in almost a worse way this time. And in that moment I came across a video that inspired me to change my life (A music video in which a man walks across the country), and here we are. That’s the truth. It literally happened in the snap of a finger.
THN: As part of the Instagram post last week in which you announced the trip, you said it hit you that you didn’t even know what you did for fun, and you discussed the connection between that fact and your depression. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
JOHNS: It’s been long time where I really haven’t had fun. I remember I was travelling from neurologist to neurologist. I went from Boston to Toronto and back to Dallas and had to catch a flight in the middle of the night to get to Arizona. And on my cab ride there, that was the first time where the cab driver said, “You live in Dallas? What do you do for fun around Dallas?” And that was six, seven months into the first year of not playing (while missing all of 2018-19 due to post-traumatic headaches). And I just broke down in the back of a cab on the way to the airport to see more doctors just because I was so desperate to find any answers because nothing was working. You give anyone a headache all day every day for months and months, and there’s not going to be much fun had, that’s for sure.
THN: Once you decided to start the trip, how did you plan your route?
JOHNS: There’s absolutely zero planning going on. Because we’re rollerblading, it’s kind of hard. We’re pretty much just using Google Maps, zooming in on a road that goes pretty much straight west or northwest and pulling up to it, and if it looks like it’s a good road with low traffic and some pretty good terrain, then we rip it. If not, we just keep driving west until we find a road that’s suitable.
THN: What does a typical day look like through one week of the trip?
JOHNS: We’re waking up around 8:30, 9:00, taking our time getting going. I usually blade for two-and-a-half to three hours, take a break on the side of the road, eat some lunch and drink and relax for an hour or so. Then I hop back on and go until I can’t anymore with the lace bite and the blisters. We’re usually getting around 35 or 40 miles a day, but I have a goal to get 100 miles in one day. I definitely want to start covering more ground, because once we get out more to the west, there’s going to be more open road and less traffic.
THN: It’s a heavy workload, especially for someone who didn’t play this season due to injury. But you look good out there, especially when you did the front flip into Lake Michigan. How are you feeling physically so far?
JOHNS: I feel good. I’m obviously pretty tired, legs are starting to go a little bit. The first week I was definitely running on some adrenaline. (The weekend) in Chicago was pretty tough, but we took a nice day off and today’s been good.
THN: Did you have to corral a bunch of backup gear to make sure your blades can withstand the wear and tear?
JOHNS: Yeah. Rollerblade sent me a brand new pair of blades and 30 or 40 extra wheels and a couple extra sets of bearings. Today was the first day we changed the wheels. We didn’t even need to, but we were concerned about the wear and tear of jumping in Lake Michigan (laughs).
THE: The front-flip was awesome.
JOHNS: I was thinking of trying a gainer.
THN: Have you been meeting up and skating with people you know? Or have strangers been joining you for various legs of the trip?
JOHNS: It’s a mixture of both. This first week it’s been unique in the sense that I’ve almost retraced my hockey career. We were in Toledo, and my billet family from Ann Arbor when I was in high school, they lived an hour-and-a-half north. So, spur of the moment, “I’m going to call them and see if they’re home.” So we went and saw them. And while I was up there, I was like, “Holy s—, (my alma mater) Notre Dame’s right on the way. Might as well stop in Chicago. Everything has wound up perfectly, and we’ve had people in every city we’ve been able to stay with. It’s been a crazy week. I thought I’d get two or three days into the trip and say, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? But it’s been awesome. It’s almost like I want to keep going when I get to the coast.
THN: Do you have a timeline in mind for when you want to get there?
JOHNS: We’re trying to get there by August. We’ve got a couple different deadlines that we’re keeping an eye on, but we’re going to take it day by day and see how much ground we can cover, because I can’t blade every mile. It’s physically impossible with things like hills. We’re doing it the safe way.
THN: Do you have any constant companions along for the ride?
JOHNS: My videographer Jeff Toates, he’s following me in a truck with signs and flashers, he’s doing all the filming and interviews, and he’s trying to put something good together here.
THN: What kind of feedback have you received so far?
JOHNS: You can’t even imagine. Thousands of messages. Random people will message me saying, “I know nothing about hockey. I’m just hearing about your story, and here’s my story and this is now much you’ve helped me today.” It’s been crazy. We were in the middle of Ohio, and some guy screamed out my name and asked if I was who I was. He said, “I’m literally looking at your Instagram. I was having a rough morning, and your Instagram put me in a better mood, and I looked up and I literally saw you.” It’s stuff like that. It’s been so eye-opening to see that there are a lot of people out in this world that are struggling, and maybe I didn’t even get the worst of it when I thought I did. That’s why I want to do this – to show people that even if you are struggling, you can change your life on a dime, in an instant. You can take control of it and run with it.
THN: Are you thinking yet about your next career step after this? Could raising awareness for mental health put you on the path to being a motivational speaker? Or would you like to stay in hockey in some capacity?
JOHNS: I don’t know. I think we’re just taking this one day at a time. I have no idea where I’m going to be in a week. I got a degree (in marketing from Notre Dame) that I hope to put to use one day. But right now my focus is getting to the Pacific, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.
THN: Is there any message you want to share for anyone tracking your journey right now?
JOHNS: If anybody wants to get involved with this movement, we’ve been pretty vocal about using the hashtag #MentalMiles, tagging us. It’s about using that time for each person, whether they’re doing their mental miles or not, to reflect on their mental health journey or others around them. It’s a reflection time.