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In My Own Words: Erin Ambrose
Erin Ambrose
October 10, 2020

Number 23, a right-shot defenceman from Keswick, Ontario … Erin Ambrose.

This is who I feel I am always competing to be more than. To be better than.

I have always been that kid who plays hockey, and for as long as I can remember I have struggled with thinking that others see me as only that. Do people look at me as Erin Ambrose the hockey player, the girl whose life revolves around hockey?

While that alone can have a profound impact on someone, imagine what it feels like when you think you are not good enough at the one thing you are known for.

I have often asked myself, “What’s the point? Who can I really be if I can’t even be who people think I am?” These are the feelings that suffocated me after being released from Olympic centralization in November 2017. As the thoughts race through my mind, I remind myself that I know I have been here and I have overcome this before. I have shown myself that I am stronger than I ever thought I could be. I know that I will not go down that deep hole again. And I know that I am MUCH more than just a hockey player.

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For many Canadians, 2010 was a banner year for hockey. It was the year of a home-ice Olympics, of double gold for our women’s and men’s teams, and of one of the most pivotal steps in my hockey journey. I was a member of the Toronto Jr. Aeros in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League. I had been named to Team Canada for my first IIHF Women’s U18 World Championship and came home from Chicago a gold medallist. I was on a path of deciding where I would attend university.

But none of those things quite filled me with the joy I felt I should have as a 16-year-old chasing her hockey dreams. With each exciting achievement that came and went, there was a massive amount of emptiness I still felt inside. Hockey was my escape from all that was happening at home, and thankfully, I had teammates that truly cared about my wellbeing. My captain at the time became somebody I could count on as I minimized the amount of time I wanted to be at home. For those who know me, I am a huge family person, so not wanting to go home was a big concern and should have been a red flag.

As the hockey season came and went, I continued to have issues with my overall happiness and struggled to “find myself.” I changed schools and started living with a teammate (who was one of my best friends) in hopes of turning the page and getting myself out of my own head and back to enjoying my teenage years. I longed to find true happiness and escape the emptiness that weighed on me daily. I felt more distant than ever from my family, found myself questioning if I wanted to be involved with Hockey Canada and, most alarming, there were days that I contemplated my future. I found myself questioning my will to be alive.

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Eventually, I decided to open up to both my mom and sister about what and how I was feeling. It was a huge relief. They reassured me that I was not alone, nor did I have to live this struggle on my own. I learned that depression and anxiety ran in the family. I talked with my doctor about these fears, the constant darkness and my concern about my well-being, and we were able to create a plan of action moving forward. Although I am constantly fighting against my anxiety, I am proud that I have taken strides in managing the highs and lows.

To start working through what was holding me back, there were aspects of my life I needed to start to embrace and accept. For one, my sexual orientation was something I had been hiding for years. The stress of constantly wondering if I would be accepted took a toll on my well-being. But my family has been so supportive through it all, and to say they love me for who I am would be the understatement of the century. It is something that many people deal with differently and I cannot pretend to sit here and say it did not affect me or that I didn’t question if it would just be “easier” to try to push it away and hide who I am. But that isn’t what makes me happy, and it never would have. As much as I struggled to choose to be myself and live the real me, I can tell you, with so much happiness, that as a proud LGTBQ+ member, it is WORTH it to be yourself and be PROUD of it.

I wish I could just fast-forward to the fall of 2017 and tell you how those challenges had prepared me to overcome the biggest disappointment of my life – my release from Olympic centralization. Little did I know that the years leading up to then would be a roller-coaster of experiences and hardships, with so many highs but just as many lows, turns and dips.

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In 2012, I excitedly accepted an athletic scholarship to Clarkson University. Let the wild ride begin. Placed on academic probation after only one semester, I was dealing with an eating disorder I did not want to acknowledge and continued to use hockey as my escape. Everything in my life seemed to be going straight downhill, but on the ice I was thriving. So, I ignored the issues. At least, I tried to. But my priorities were off and I was not happy with myself. I could not understand why I felt so unhappy in life but continued to succeed as a hockey player.

By the end of my junior year, I was back on track academically, but very unhappy. For the first time in my life, hockey was no longer there to save me. I spent the year on my own and truly focusing on myself. As hard as it was, it was something that was long overdue. I connected with those who cared about me as a person and not just a hockey player. I leaned heavily on my family and made a conscious effort to be more attentive to my relatives back home. I worked to be more present in my roommates’ life and I was much happier being surrounded by my teammates, even though I was not happy with my hockey situation.

The reality is, hockey had always been my safe place, and I had that taken away from me. From that moment on, I felt like I had lost that sanctuary, which resulted in an increase of anxiety and triggered a series of anxiety attacks. I began writing more, isolating myself and trying to express myself in other ways, doing whatever I could to try and find an answer. As someone who thrives on routines (they help diminish my anxiety and help me cope with daily highs and lows), when I lost that hockey routine – and ultimately my happiness at the rink – everything changed and I relied heavily on focusing on others and ignoring the thoughts and feelings I had. When I lose myself, I throw myself into the happiness of others. This has, and always will be, something that is important to me, although detrimental at times to my mental state.

With my senior year coming to an end and post-college life approaching in the spring of 2016, I was still struggling immensely with day-to-day anxiety even as I felt more at peace with myself. As I continued to work myself out of the dark hole of depression, my anxiety increased ten-fold with the unknown ahead. Anxiety is not something that can just be checked off in a box in the morning to overcome for that day. There are different triggers for different people and so many different levels of anxiety. I began to realize that anxiety attacks came on during situations where I lacked control. Crowds, unknown places and uncertainty became overwhelming, especially when I was without people that understood what my triggers were. The fear of going out on my own was more than I could handle and truly hindered finding my comfort and confidence at the rink that I was still trying to rediscover.

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Then came the biggest unknown, and the biggest challenge of my hockey career. I moved to Calgary in August 2017 to centralize with Hockey Canada in hopes of being named to Canada’s Women’s Olympic Team for the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. Every day, I made sure to write in my journal anything I felt was important from that day; I found this helped immensely in dealing with the stress and anxiety I was feeling.

Truth be told, this was one of the toughest years of my life. I arrived to centralization out of shape and found myself playing catch-up and doing extra conditioning (stress level increases). Every day we needed to perform, regardless of how we were feeling both mentally and/or physically (stress level increases). Don’t get me wrong, centralization was one heck of an experience and I am so thankful I got to be a part of it. But as a first-time centralized athlete, I had no idea how to manage my anxiety and struggled to find balance. I was in constant contact with our mental performance coach and our doctor – I felt like the weight of my anxiety was becoming overwhelming.

But this wasn’t the time to deal with my mental health. It was the time to make the Olympics and put hockey first.

November 20, 2017. I can tell you every single detail about the day. That is the day I was released from centralization and sent home. My dreams of playing in the Olympics were gone, just like that. I felt like my world was ending. I remember Mel Davidson, our general manager, asking me if I was okay. I obviously wasn’t, but I knew she was concerned about my mental state, and she had every right to be. This news crushed me. I didn’t know how I could face my family. I felt like I had let them down. Within a day, I also lost the opportunity to be around my teammates and closest friends, and my ultimate goal of playing in the Olympics.

All of this changed in the blink of an eye and I found myself wondering who I wanted to be moving forward. It sounds dramatic, but I truly would not wish the pain I felt on my worst enemy. Knowing all you have worked your entire life for, the person you felt like everybody saw you as, was taken away from you so quickly. In response to my pain, I made a hard decision and moved my life to Montreal. I felt like I had to get away and get myself out of a dark place. Most importantly, I had to get out of it on my own. And I did just that.

What makes me even more proud is that I am happier with myself than I have ever been. I still struggle, immensely, with the daily grind of finding happiness. But I have learned and continue to learn to love me for who I am. Yes, I wear No. 23. Yes, I shoot right. Yes, I play defence. But I also wear my heart on my sleeve, I care about those around me and I value respect and loyalty. I am empathetic. I am goofy. I am a competitor. I am strong.

Oh, and I play hockey, too.

P.S. I’m not going to insinuate that I am an expert on anxiety and depression. But what I want people to know is that anybody can struggle. My mom, my sister and my nana are my inspiration; each one of them have not only lived their lives but have been BEYOND successful in everything they do while fighting this battle. I battle every day with anxiety and depression, as well as with believing and knowing that I am more than Erin Ambrose, the hockey player. So, whoever you are, whatever you are doing, know that you are more than what your job title makes you. You belong, you are amazing and you will be even better tomorrow.

About the author
Erin Ambrose made her debut with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team in August 2009 as a 15-year-old and remains the youngest player to play for the U18 program, as well as its all-time leading scorer among defencemen. Her international career has included 81 games at every level of Canada’s National Women’s Program, two gold medals and a silver at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship, and silver and bronze at the IIHF Women’s World Championship. She also won a pair of gold medals with Ontario Red at the National Women’s Under-18 Championship in 2009 and 2011, and added silver at the 2011 Canada Winter Games.