For two years Emile Poirier lived in denial. But it reached a point last February where he couldn't do it any more.
"Seeing my life where it was going, I needed a change," said Poirier on Wednesday at WinSport, talking publicly for the first time about his battle with alcoholism. "I've seen signs for the last two years and finally I admitted it to myself."
Playing for Stockton in the AHL at the time, his last game was Feb. 18. That night he was held off the scoresheet for the 13th consecutive game. With a healthy scratch included in that stretch as well, he had become a mere shell of the dynamic player that burst onto the AHL scene two seasons earlier and racked up 19 goals in 55 games as a rookie.
The person he reached out to was Flames general manager Brad Treliving.
"I called him for support, I needed help and he's been truly supportive through the process," said Poirier.
It wasn't an easy conversation.
"Pretty emotional," admits Treliving, recalling that moment. "He said, 'Listen, I've got to make some changes.' For us, it feels like a dark day but in a lot of ways, it's a great day because you recognize it.
"To go through that, it takes great strength to ask for help."
No Longer Was Hockey the Top Priority
What everyone also must recognize is alcohol addiction is an affliction that has implications that extend well beyond a 200x85 foot ice surface.
"I said to him, No. 1, forget about hockey," said Treliving. "He was facing a fight that was bigger than hockey so let's worry about that."
Shortly after, he was admitted into the NHL's treatment program in California where he remained in the care of professionals at that facility for a couple of months. You don't go there for a set period of time, you go there until they're satisfied that you're ready to leave. While you're there, you're off the grid. Nobody hears from you.
Fast forward to today, five months later, and Poirier is living in Calgary. He hopes this is all behind him, but as anyone who has been through a battle with sobriety will attest, it's not going to be easy.
A central figure helping Poirier along his path to recovery is former Flame Brian McGrattan. As has been well-documented over the years, he went through the same fight in his NHL playing days.
"I'm working with Brian McGrattan every day. He's awesome with me and he's helped me to go through this process," said Poirier, re-iterating more than once his gratitude for all the support he has received.
In developing a plan for how to move forward, Treliving involved McGrattan, hoping the 35-year-old would be willing to assist. Coming as no surprise, he was and the GM is appreciative of that support.
"(McGrattan) has jumped in with both feet," he said. "He's talked to Emile, he's had him over to his house for dinner. I think they talk daily. We've got a support system there for him.
"Brian's done a real good job. He's been excellent."
Not-So-Subtle Decline in Performance
As Poirier's goal total plummeted, falling from 19 to 12 in his sophomore season and then to just six last year, so did his stock as a prospect.
Ranked No. 2 behind Sam Bennett in my bi-annual prospect rankings in August 2015, he fell to 4th, then 10th, and last February in my most recent update, he was barely clinging to 20th. It was confounding that such a talented player could fall off the radar so drastically and so quickly. We're talking about a guy who scored 43 goals and 87 points in 63 games in his final year of major junior. Skilled, fast and with some snarl too, there was so much to like about his game.
Turns out, that sharp decline in his performance on the ice was mirroring his struggles off it.
"It answered some questions to what happened to Emile the player," admits Treliving. "You said for a long time, geez, what happened to him? So there was a little bit of an 'aha'. Maybe we know what happened to him."
As Treliving knows very well, having played professional hockey himself for many years, taking action isn't always an easy thing to do in an environment where you're always around 'the guys'. With the territory comes a certain level of bravado.
"Some people look at it as a weakness. I think that's a crock of shit. It shows great strength for anybody to say hey, whatever it is, I have this and I want some help," he said. "He's gotten it and sitting with him in the office the other day, it's like he's seeing the world for the first time. Those are all things you're just really proud of."
Trying to Recapture His Old Form
Treliving says he already sees a different player.
Smiling, the GM recalls his first impression of Poirier, which came after he had only been on the job a handful of days.
"Abbotsford was playing Grand Rapids and he had just come from Gatineau (QMJHL) and this guy was the best player on the ice for both teams," he said. "Then he had his shoulder surgery and then he missed training camp and then his first game back in Adirondack, he was the best player on both teams. He had two goals, he hit five posts and we're like, we have a player here -- but it's steadily gone down."
With his life back on track, Treliving hopes the 22-year-old can also get his career back on the rails and get back to that same level, if not higher.
"He's a good hockey player, he's a talent and he's also not 38 years old," said Treliving. "This is a young man and I think he's determined to give it a push and we'll see where it goes, but he's given himself a chance."
For Poirier, it's now about getting back to the player he once was, because that player, taken 22nd in the 2013 draft, looked a sure-fire NHLer.
"Now that I'm fully focused on hockey, I just have to play my game," said the Montreal native. "I'm a good hockey player, I can do my thing and nothing's in the way now. So I'll just do my job and we'll see what happens."
But surrounded by a solid support system in Calgary -- McGrattan, Flames strength and conditioning coach Ryan van Asten, Poirier's girlfriend -- back together after breaking up -- has also moved to the city, the many players always milling around town including Micheal Ferland, another player who has been through a similar fight and whom he speaks with regularly, he is set up to succeed.
"It's an everyday thing and there will be tough days along the way but as long as you have that support group, it's going to help you as best that they can," said Treliving. "Hockey is never going to work if the life's not in order. The life's now in order so now the hockey has a chance to work."
With one year remaining on his entry-level contract and jobs available on the NHL roster on right wing, it's once again go-time for Poirier, only this time No. 28 is truly ready.
"The best I've felt," smiles Poirier. "I feel awesome and I'm ready to go."
Awesome. Fans hope that is a feeling that never goes away, regardless of how his hockey career turns out. Sometimes there are more important things in life.
"You cross your fingers and you really, really root for him," said Treliving.
By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Southern Charm: Two Edmonton Products Turned Flames Prospects - A slick scoring winger and a hard hitting defenceman are two pretty nice prospects to have. Better yet for Flames fans, Spencer Foo and Josh Healey were poached from Edmonton. (July 5, 2017)
- Development Camp 2017: Eight Prospects to Watch - In some cases, they may not necessarily be the most talented, well-known or top-ranked prospects, but nonetheless, here are eight guys that are Calgary property who I'm intrigued to watch this week. (July 4, 2017)
- State of the Roster: On Eve of July 1, Flames Needs Down to Perhaps Just One Piece - A close up look at where Calgary's roster is at in terms of numbers and proximity to the salary cap. Hint: It's not much different coming out of July 1 than it was going in. (June 30, 2017)
- Six-Year-Plan: Two New Additions Bolster Flames Defensive Corp Now and for Later - Brad Treliving went to Chicago looking for a top-four defenceman. Instead, he came home with two of them. A look at how Calgary's D stacks up now and in the future. (June 24, 2017)
- Examining the Smith Deal: Eight Points to Ponder Before Passing Final Judgment - There was much anger when the Smith trade was announced, but was it warranted? Upon sober second thought, it could be argued that the Smith deal was an ideal move. (June 17, 2017)