Former Dallas Stars hockey player Stephen Johns is rolling along on a slow journey.
The former defenseman is rollerblading across the country in a journey to raise both money and awareness of mental health challenges.
“I just think about life, about great moments in my life, my hockey career and my personal life,” Johns said. “Just kind of reflect on where I was before the journey and where I am now.”
While rolling across America on rollerblades without a daily agenda, Johns is now at peace, rediscovering life before mental health challenges created by the game he loves, which changed his life forever.
“You want to play with a torn-up knee or broken wrist or something,” Johns said. “That’s the awesomeness of hockey is just how tough guys are. But there are certain injuries you can’t play through. And I played through them throughout my entire career and it caught up to me.”
What caught up to Johns was multiple concussions.
Though he said the Stars organization was incredibly supportive, an inner desire to get back to the game pushed him to return too soon and to a dark place.
“I was happy, I was loving life, nothing was wrong, I was in the NHL living my dream, then this happens, and I have a headache for every second of every day for years,” Johns said. “I contribute my concussions to the downfall of everything.”
His downfall included an early retirement from hockey.
That is when Johns decided to ask his friend, photographer Jeff Toates, to meet at his home in Pennsylvania.
The two began a journey across the country on rollerblades logging what Johns refers to as “mental miles.”
“I feel like myself again for the first time in three years,” Johns said. “We’ve been averaging about 30 to 50 miles a day depending on the heat and terrain. We’re hitting the way outback roads where there’s maybe a car every hour.”
The responses to Johns’ courageous journey have been overwhelming, with both Mental Health America and the Dallas Stars Foundation backing his mission to raise money to help others facing mental health challenges.
“This is so much bigger than me, and that’s been the coolest part has been meeting other people along the journey and them telling us their stories,” Johns said. “And them telling us how meaningful it is that someone in my position is open and vocal about it.”
Johns made it all the way from his home in Pennsylvania to the coast of Washington state on his rollerblades.
His goal is to skate into downtown Dallas and into American Airlines Center to drop a puck before a Dallas Stars game this fall.
“Doing this journey kind of makes me realize how amazing life is,” Johns said. “I’m going to grab this momentum and just hold on to it.”