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A life shattered by concussions

Multiple concussions led to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide for Chris Marinakos

Chris Marinakos will never complain about the sacrifices he made to chase his hockey dreams – even though that persistent pursuit almost cost him his life.

The truth is the game that defined him and shaped his character also destroyed him, left him hollowed out and desperate.

“You know what, I can’t even remember my last shift,” he says, his voice full of regret, trembling with echoes of the way the brutal bumps and bangs broke his spirit and crushed his soul. “Our playoff run in my last year of pro hockey … I know we lost in the first round, but I don’t have any memories of those games.”

In his final regular-season game with Evry, a city just south of Paris, France, Marinakos was pummelled with a blindside hit to the head. “I don’t think I had the puck, but I don’t remember. I just got rocked,” he says. “I was woozy and went to the dressing room. The trainer talked to me in French and I didn’t really understand the language.”

The team doctor was summoned and “for some reason, I told him I was fine,” said Marinakos, who noted the language barrier was a factor. “I just got irritated and went back out. Then, I got hit again and that time I just knew. I don’t even remember the rest of that game; the playoffs were a blur.”

While he can’t recall details about how he played, he remembers the impact of the hits. “I felt destroyed. With my mind just getting basically tossed around … It was tough. Now that I look back, it was probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.”

Marinakos entered that season excited about the prospect of playing pro hockey – something he had dreamed of for years – but he was also, he would admit now, damaged goods.

The damage started when he was playing minor hockey in Orillia and continued in junior hockey in Huntsville and Stayner and during his impressive three-year run with the Seguin Bruins when he averaged almost a point a game and wore the captain’s C. Along the way, the undersized, hard-working forward often felt like he had a bull’s-eye on his back; he was hit hard and often.

By his third year of college, playing Division III NCAA hockey for Courtland University in New York, the cumulative effects of the bumps and bangs and hits to the head were taking their toll. “At the time I played, it was mean hockey,” says Marinakos of his time in New York. “A guy could take a run at a guy and crush him and get (no penalty). It was a lot more physical.”

And he paid the price. “My third year in college, I really started feeling the effects,” he said. “It was maybe one of my worst years as a person. There was something wrong with me. I was always angry. I got to the point where I was mad at everyone and felt the world owed me something. It was completely out of character.”

He discovered drinking eased his pain – at least temporarily. “I wasn’t an alcoholic by any means, but excessive drinking became a crucial part of my life.”

Untethered and in a haze, far from his real self, alone night after night in his room, Marinakos began to think about suicide. “I remember just thinking about taking my life,” he says, fighting back tears. “It was pretty serious … it was a tough situation.”

He understands now that it was a tough situation made worse because he didn’t reach out for help. “I didn’t talk to anyone,” he says. His teammates didn’t know about the dark place he was in, nor did his coaches or friends. Despite being close to his family, he was not able to talk to them about it.

“No one knew,” he says.

The only way he survived was thinking about his family. “I’d be just sitting alone in my room, with the lights off because of my head, and figuring out what I was going to do,” he says, the pain etched between the letters of every carefully chosen word. “And I’d think of my family and what they would have thought if I had done something.”

Somehow, he kept playing and had his best year – on the ice – during his fourth year. “I was playing my best hockey. I was a fourth liner, but playing on the first-line power play. I had skill but I was on the fourth line doing the dirty work for the better of the team, which I accepted,” he said.

No one knew he was a broken man. “I had suffered a couple of concussions (in my third year) and I had post-concussion problems big-time,” he said. “I had bad headaches, my focus wasn’t right. I do regret not saying there was something wrong with me.”

While not making excuses and taking pains to say he does not want pity, he says hockey players compete in a unique culture. “There was pressure, no doubt about that, from all sides,” he says, although he admits most came from within himself. “As a player, you don’t want to let your team down. You don’t want to look like you’re soft or weak.”

It’s why, in part, it has taken three years since he hung up his skates to come forward; it’s taken that long to screw up the courage to speak about what many still perceive is weakness but that is anything but.

“I just think it’s time,” he said of the decision to go public with how concussions led to persistent mental health struggles that almost led him to take his own life. He said watching the movie, Concussion, tipped the scales. “That really put a scare into me.”

He is also talking about his ordeal to help others. “It’s about building awareness,” he says, noting after he walked away from pro hockey he finally went to his family doctor, who prescribed medication to help combat his depression and anxiety; he also saw a psychiatrist for a time. “Once you get one concussion, it’s easy to get another. It doesn’t take much. They compound and things get worse. I likely had 10 to 15 concussions over my hockey career. I want people to know that silence just leads to bigger problems.”

The 28-year-old recently decided to start coaching a local minor peewee hockey team. “I don’t want these kids to not remember their last shift,” he says. “I tell them there are times you’re going to get injured or cut and to help them deal with that. I try to get them to understand it’s important to properly manage injuries, to work hard. These things go by in a blink of the eye.”

Coaching has become his salvation. “It’s absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done. A hockey rink is my safe place. It really brings light into that dark tunnel. If I can make a kid better, I’m ecstatic. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I can’t wait to go to the rink and to see the kids.”

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. Physically, he says he feels great. And although he no longer takes any medication, “mentally, I still have my days. I don’t have depression any more, but I’m still coping with anxiety. Some days, I just don’t have any motivation. I think that’s where I’m really regretting not ending (my career) earlier.”

These days, Marinakos is pursuing a new passion – his own business. While he still helps out at the family business, Tops in Pizza, he launched a line of dressing and sauces created from his beloved mom’s traditional recipes, called Mama Mari’s. He has high hopes for the enterprise.

Despite his struggles, he remains an optimist.

“The positives outweigh the negatives” of his hockey journey, he says. “I know a lot would disagree. But, to me, it’s not a negative thing. It’s a positive story that will, hopefully, change one life for the better. Even though hockey gave me the most gruesome injuries, it also shaped the player I was and the person I became, which is a good thing. I still love the game and I don’t regret playing hockey one bit. I just regret some of the decisions I made.”


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Dave Dawson

About the Author: Dave Dawson

Dave Dawson is community editor of
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