Jets prospect Danny Zhilkin’s vision to de-stigmatize mental health

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From playing in front of thousands at the age of 15 to leaving home the following year after being drafted into the OHL, Danny Zhilkin knows how big of a mental toll the pressure of being a highly-touted hockey player can take.

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So a couple of months after the Winnipeg Jets took the now 19-year-old in the third round of the 2022 NHL Draft, Zhilkin, along with his longtime girlfriend Lauren Shoss, started Zhilkin’s Vision.

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The program strives to de-stigmatize and prioritize mental health in sports, empowering other athletes to speak out about their own experiences, and leading struggling athletes to resources and support needed to seek help.

“It’s a huge part of hockey now and so many more athletes are speaking out about being affected by mental health,” Zhilkin said last week during Winnipeg’s development camp. “Everybody’s affected by mental health, but not everyone speaks out and puts it in the public.”

The pressures on young hockey players are enormous, Zhilkin said.

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At 15, he represented Team Ontario at the Canada Winter Games, playing in the final in Red Deer in front of thousands during a nationally televised game.

At 16, he was drafted into the OHL by Guelph, leaving home when most kids are just entering high school.

The following year was his NHL draft year, ratcheting up the pressure even further.

“It starts so young, the pressure, and at such a young age,” Zhilkin said. “In my draft year, you’re trying to fulfill your dream and when you don’t have a good game, you’re kind of down on yourself.”

While Zhilkin provides the high-performance athlete perspective, co-founder Shoss comes with the brains.

She just graduated from Boston University with a Master’s in counselling and sports psychology, having already graduated from McMaster University’s health sciences program in 2021. Next year, she will begin pursuing her doctorate at James Madison University.

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Zhilkin, who was traded to the Kitchener Rangers last season, said the pair wanted to get into the community dating back to his first season in Guelph, following in the footsteps of his former captain, Cam Hillis, and another former Guelph captain, Garrett McFadden.

Hillis, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, pledged to match donations up to $5,000 to KidSport Ontario until last year, with the goal at the time to help 40 kids from across Ontario experience the benefits of sport.

Not unlike Zhilkin’s Vision, McFadden’s Movement aims to change, help and develop mental health among athletes starting at the grassroots level.

“(Lauren and I) wanted to share our experiences,” Zhilkin said. “Me being a professional athlete and her being a soon-to-be sports psychologist, I think both of us have great platforms to promote. It’s been going well so far.”

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Leaving home at 16 was one thing. Burlington to Guelph is only about an hour-long drive.

At nine, Zhilkin and his family moved from Moscow, where he was born, to Canada at the behest of a coach that had seen him play during a camp in 2013.

He had to learn a new language and a new culture.

But even with an hour between home and his family, the rigours of the junior circuit meant little time to see family.

Zhilkin said that’s something he struggled with.

His own work on the mental side of the game, meanwhile, has helped on a competitive level.

“If there’s an opponent that you think is more skilled than you, you can mentally outwork them and set your mind that where you know you might not have the skill level to match, but mentally you can kind of outwork them and out-compete them,” Zhilkin said.

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That’s something he leaned on last year during Winnipeg’s main training camp in September.

“You’re on the ice with (Mark) Scheifele and Blake Wheeler and guys like that, and they’re obviously more skilled and stronger than you,” Zhilkin said. “You just kind of say in your head that you’re here for a reason. You can try and compete with those guys and do the best that you can, mentally try and outwork them and out-compete them.”

More about Zhilkin’s Vision can be found on the organization’s website, while their Instagram page provides plenty of resources created by Shoss.

[email protected]

Twitter: @scottbilleck

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