Tyler Smith is 24 years old and originally from Leduc, Alberta. Growing up, Tyler played any sport he could and loved going to school as he thrived being in group settings. Being a bubbly person, he enjoyed being around people, making them laugh and feel good about themselves. All these reasons also played a part in why Tyler enjoyed sports. As Tyler got older, he started to focus more of his attention on hockey leading him to the opportunity to play in the SJHL for the Humboldt Bronco for the 2017-2018 season. 

This team’s time together, unfortunately, was cut short. On April 6th, 2018, while the team was driving to a playoff game, their bus was hit by a semi-trailer truck that had failed to stop at a flashing stop sign. Sixteen people died that day; 13 survived, Tyler being one of the survivors. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel can seem near impossible after an experience like this. However, Tyler has used this experience as motivation to become a mental health advocate. I had the opportunity to sit down with Tyler to discuss the journey, setbacks, and success that took him to where he is today.

SOS: how many years did you play hockey? 

TYLER: Oh geez, I think I started when I was about four and just finished [playing] two years ago. So I played for about sixteen years or so and am still involved in the game, which is nice.

SOS: Did you have a favourite team you played on?

TYLER: I would honestly say my year in Humboldt. I think that’s obviously why it was so hard. That team was just made up of very different personalities, and I think we all just bought into the fact that we were playing in front of a community that supported us. And the least we could do was give it our all and go out into the community and support them as well. It sucks because I’m always comparing any other groups I have to that group, I guess. But it was also very refreshing to be able to be surrounded with a group of people that you truly enjoyed being with every single day. I definitely played on a lot of fun teams. I played on a lot of successful teams. That team in Humboldt takes the cake.

SOS: What was your favourite/least favourite part about playing hockey?

TYLER: I would say my least favourite part is that it has come to an end. I definitely have some buddies that are playing in the NHL and doing their thing. But for me, that was never really, I guess, an option, and so it has to come to an end which sucks. But at the end of the day, I think my favourite part of hockey is that there are always opportunities and room to grow. I think the game of hockey has a lot to work on. I think we need to improve upon a lot of things. But I think at the end of the day, hockey is a huge part of why I am the person I am today, the relationships I have built, people I have met, the character it has built inside of me, and the comradery is a special thing.

SOS: Shifting away from the hockey questions focused more on mental health. What is a piece of advice you would give someone who is struggling with their mental health?

TYLER: I have thought about this question quite a lot. I think there are a couple of things that come to mind. I think at the end of the day, I am a big believer in making sure everyone else is good around me and making sure that they’re doing good. But at the end of the day, I think one of the best pieces of advice I have ever got after I had to step away from Humbolt was just the fact that this is your life. This is your happiness. This is your journey. There shouldn’t be anybody telling you or hindering you, or holding you back from pursuing what you need to do for you. I think it’s a hard thing for a lot of people to do and not to single out men. I think it’s hard for men to put themselves first. It’s so beyond miraculous what can be done after you make that step. I think another thing with making that step, there is no right or wrong way to do it. I always thought there was a set of guidelines or formulas that would ultimately help me heal and help me grow and recover from what’s been going on. But at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to do it, you just have to start somewhere, and I think it’s different for a lot of people. Everyone has their own story.

SOS: Have you always been open to talking about Mental Health, or is this something you became more comfortable candidly talking about after the accident?

TYLER: I think before the accident, I realistically never went through anything trauma related. I never went through grief or loss before the accident. So I guess I didn’t fully understand mental health. I didn’t really want to get invested in it because I never really went through anything. I never grasped the fact that this is a big issue.  I think for a lot of people it took the pandemic and, for me, the accident and going through those weeks and months of being emotionally frozen. And now, public speaking is something I never anticipated doing. The first [time I public spoke], I was reached out by an old billet mom that my friend used to live within Whitecourt for a midget provincial championship, and I spoke. I think that kind of ignited that thought in my head that I could use my platform a little bit to facilitate some hope and inspire some people along the way. And obviously, with what’s going on in the world, especially post-pandemic, I think a lot of people really had too much time with their thoughts which is a good and bad thing, I guess. It has led to a lot more conversations being started around mental health. And I think the stigma is slowly going down a little bit. There is still a lot of work to be done. But now, being able to have these opportunities to speak to a wide variety of audiences is special. It’s important to me; I’m passionate about it. And as much as I hope the people in the audience get something from it, it’s ultimately really good for me as well. 

SOS: Do you find public speaking therapeutic? 

TYLER: Yeah, I would say so. I think a lot of people after the accident said that writing is therapeutic, talking about it is therapeutic. And I guess for me, talking about it. I didn’t associate it with vulnerability. I never understood the depths of vulnerability and courage and strength and all that. I honestly think post-speech, as much as I am exhausted after a speech, I think it’s good for me the next day or even the night after a good cry with friends. I think a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. For the most part, I would say after 100% of my speeches, I do feel good the next day, and I do feel I accomplished something I can be proud of, which is huge. 

SOS: After the accident, did you know that you wanted to go down the more optimistic route? 

TYLER: Honestly, not at all. It almost took a year for me to work on myself, and it took a lot of people around me having to bite their tongue because it’s a very uncomfortable situation for a lot of people and a unique situation as well. I mean, we just went through something that I hope never happens to anyone again, and I think trying to navigate that path is not easy. And for me, I thought I was alone in it because I thought people would never understand the magnitude of what just happened and the magnitude of what we went through. At the end of the day, it’s about finding that common ground, even now I’ve been able to look back and find common ground with a lot of people around me and not in the same sense we went through the same thing but just in the sense of there is something we can relate on in a wide variety of aspects. 

I think even the weeks after [the accident], there was a lot of survivor’s guilt and it was a lot about consuming myself with the unanswerable questions and not thinking that I should be able to go laugh and smile. There were sixteen broken families. What gives me the right to go in public and act like things are okay? Obviously, as time went on, [and] as I started to understand myself and that I wasn’t doing good, my billet mom in Humboldt honestly started to get me on the right path. She told me to promise her to go seek help. And I think for a lot of people, saying those three words “I need help” is the ultimate start to a very difficult journey but a very promising journey in the end. I wasn’t ready to embrace the whole journey aspect of things. I think now there are still tough days and a lot of questions that go through my mind. I think I’ve had a lot of conversations with the families involved, and I think at the end of the day, we can hope that they’re still here, and I still look through my sunroof and say hi to them every once in a while. Just going through what you need to go through and embracing the fact that this is a big thing and life sometimes sucks but being able to find that light and find that joy again in life is good for you and is good for the people around you. I was starting to see me being emotionally frozen, and suffering in silence was realistically starting to affect the relationships with the people I love the most. I never want that, so it was a long time, and while it wasn’t a 100% optimistic route, I’m on a good path now, and I’m starting to understand that passion for myself that I allowed to have. 

SOS: Tell us about your clothing line and podcast

TYLER: The podcast is called “Speak Your Mind” I was actually the first guest that they had, Riley Sheahan of the Seattle Kranken and another gentleman who was the original co-host brought me on, and I shared a little bit about my story. And little to my knowledge, they next asked me to co-host, and I was like do I co-host a podcast with an NHL’ER? Yes absolutely. It’s called “Speak Your Mind,” and I think the biggest thing for us is hitting the sports community more, but we are definitely never turning away guests. I think being able to have entertainment guests and people in the psychology world, I think to have that wide variety of guests with different stories who to a lot of people have it all. 

The clothing line [Not Alone Co.] started about a year and a half ago. I know the family that owns the embroidery company in Leduc, where I am from, and I presented them with this idea. I love clothes, hoodies, hats, and shoes. And I saw a design on the internet, and I was like, well if can I attach my two simple yet meaningful phrases, which is “not alone” and “its okay to not be okay” and slap them on a hoodie because I think the biggest thing for me is I didn’t want to hide behind a logo. I wanted it to be front and center, and I think that’s the biggest thing when people see it. They’re instantly thinking about it. As soon as you read a quote, I think you’re instantly dissecting that quote in your brain, and I’ve been able to expand and do a bunch of different hoodie designs and hat designs. And we have been able to donate a portion of the proceeds to mental health charities and foundations. Whether they are close to me or more national, we try to switch it up. But receiving a message from somebody about how a tough conversation was facilitated because of the messaging on the clothing is the greatest thing in the world. And I think that’s what continually brings me back, and has been a very fun journey, and I hope to continue doing and continue hitting more audiences and reaching more people and making sure people know they’re not alone. 

SOS: I learnt the other day that you coach hockey. Besides teaching the kids how to snipe, shoot, and celly, what do you enjoy about coaching?

TYLER: To start, this was my first year of coaching. I’ve done my fair share of hockey camps and tryouts, but I’ve never [coached] for a full year, and even to start the season, I told the head coach I’ll try to make it to a couple practices here, and they don’t expect me to be there much. And honestly, I think I missed two or three practices and games all year. I think I fell in love with these kids and fell in love with that I can look back and think I had some pretty special coaches and if these kids can look back and think to themselves, that was a year [of hockey] that I really enjoyed. When a kid comes off [the ice] crying after a shift that didn’t go his way, having that open conversation with him and having his emotions validated, I think, is a huge thing and making sure they know it’s just a little blip in the road, and it’s okay we don’t hate them. We still love them, and we’re still going to put them out next shift and make sure they know this is the best time in their lives. And it’s okay to struggle, and have bad days, and as coaches, we will be there for them. 

Written by Paige Gordon