For the first time in a long time, two free agents desperately wanted to stay with the New York Islanders. They didn’t leave Long Island high-and-dry. They didn’t ask for a trade somewhere closer to home or closer to the Cup. They asked — no, demanded — to stay… but only one did. As important and sentimental as Anders Lee’s continued captaincy is, Robin Lehner’s departure put a damper on it, initially.
Robin Lehner joined the Islanders at a very rough time in his life. Having just publicized his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder, he was a wild card that most teams wouldn’t take a chance on. Across social media, fans of his previous teams warned Isles fans about his anger issues and temper flare-ups as well as his streaky playing nature. Everyone questioned the acquisition. Yes, the Islanders needed a goalie after Halak went to Boston, but did they want to take a chance on Lehner?
Lou Lamoriello looked past all that and treated Lehner like any other player, like a person instead of a possible catastrophe. And Lehner did not disappoint. Far from it.
Lehner’s first game with the Islanders was a 4-0 shutout against the San Jose Sharks. He went on to record five more shutouts throughout the season. He paired perfectly with Thomas Greiss, each playing half the season, and remained steady and strong in the net. Together the Islanders’ goaltenders set records for the team and won the Jennings Trophy. Lehner was nominated for the Vezina Trophy as well after posting some career-high numbers.
The second award he took home from the NHL Awards, however, wasn’t for his breakout season in goal. It was for his breakout season as a role model. Lehner also won the Masterton Trophy, by an almost unanimous vote, for his inspiring perseverance and determination to succeed in hockey and in life.
After publicizing his personal struggles over the summer, Lehner did not back down from the spotlight he put himself in. Instead, he took every chance he could to challenge the stigma attached to mental disorders. He not only wore his heart on his jersey sleeve, he painted his demons on his helmet. He became an icon and an inspiration to not only Islanders fans, but to fans across the NHL and across sports in general. Lehner truly embodied the spirit of the New York Islanders this season: Besides proving people wrong as an Islander, as a member of that supposedly-doomed team of misfits, he proved people wrong as a high-performing athlete with a mental disorder. Lehner allowed neither his alcoholism nor his bipolar disorder to keep him from performing at his best.
Now fifteen months sober, he’s cherished by almost every fan in the NHL, and Islanders fans are having a hard time saying good-bye. After all, if he could manage his bipolar disorder while pucks flew at him around 90mph with a positive attitude, what couldn’t he do? And if he could have such a phenomenal season despite his struggles, then what can his fans do despite their own struggles?
Regardless of which team he plays for next (Chicago is lucky to have him), Isles fans will continue to cheer for him and wish him all the best.
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