MEN speaking openly about their mental health struggles is as rare as a Scottish summer without rain.

It is even less common in the ultra-macho world of ice hockey where players are trained to demonstrate no weaknesses, either in body or in spirit.

That is a mindset that doesn’t eradicate issues or anxiety but instead pushes them deeper and deeper into the subconscious until they can be suppressed no more. And at that point there are only two options: address it and seek help. Or don’t.

Bari McKenzie chose the former. A veteran of the British professional ice hockey scene of more than 20 years, things came to a head last summer for the Dumfries-born player. Money wrangles with former club Fife Flyers and a delayed regret at having left the club after five years proved to be the catalyst for a sudden downturn in his behaviour until it began to impinge on the homelife he shares with wife Gemma and young son, Jude.

Released by hometown team Solway Sharks, McKenzie chose to take a break from hockey and seek professional help. That came in the form of an NHS counsellor who helped unlock some of those suppressed memories, thoughts and experiences that McKenzie considered insignificant at the time.

Through opening up about what he was going through, a burden was lifted, allowing him to return to the ice with Bristol Pitbulls - who announced him this week as their new player/head coach - as a changed man.

“It came to a point last year when I was miserable and things were coming to a head,” he admits. “I was really struggling with a few things. One was about money I felt I was owed. Plus there were doubts over whether I had made the right decision to leave Fife. That just tipped me over.

“I was just in a bad mood, not in the right head space and ended up being snappy with Gemma all the time. It got to a point where I thought, ‘I can’t deal with this any more’.

“I told some people at Solway that I was really struggling. I wasn’t playing well so when they released me it was like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. And then I went to get help. I took seven weeks out from playing hockey and just speaking to somebody helped me so much.

“I went to see my GP and they put me in touch with someone on the NHS. And the help I got from them was brilliant. It was mostly about coping mechanisms and what to do when you get triggers, taking yourself away from certain situations.

“I had never felt down or depressed like that before. I’d always just been happy and played my hockey. But when I spoke to a professional, they said there were things that happened in the past that were maybe triggers that I wasn’t aware of and how I was feeling was like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Things you thought were minor in the past maybe stayed with you.

“Before I met Gemma I was drinking too much. It was just the culture at that time, especially when you were away from home and living in a team house.

“That maybe masked a lot of things I was going through at the time. Only through talking about it last year did I realise how much of that was all tied in. Now my home life, my work life and my hockey life are all so much better just from speaking to a professional.”

McKenzie told close friends and teammates, new and old, about his counselling sessions but elected to keep it out of the public domain. That changed, however, when news rippled through a few months ago that Dayle “Keeno” Keen had died suddenly at just 33 years old.

The pair had crossed paths many times throughout their wandering hockey careers, with McKenzie having spoken at length with the Coventry Blaze assistant coach just a few days before his untimely death. It prompted the 37-year-old to take to social media to urge others struggling with their mental health to seek help as he had done.

“I never came out publicly about it until the Keeno situation but I felt I had to say something after that,” he adds. “If you’re struggling you’ve got to get help. There’s no shame in it. A lot of folk struggle but there’s this big macho thing attached to hockey and people don’t want to admit it.

“Keeno passed away on the Sunday evening and I’d spoken to him on the Tuesday or Wednesday that week. He was moving in the direction that he wanted as a coach but was obviously struggling with other things in his life.

“I told him then what I’d been through and how I’d been feeling because I knew he had been through a lot too. We spoke for an hour about hockey and this and that and then a few days later we saw what happened. That was hard to take and I knew I had to say something.

“Nobody at Bristol knew what I had gone through but after the Keeno situation I shared my story on the team group chat. I said I wasn’t ashamed of it and that if they ever wanted to talk about anything, whether it was hockey or just life in general, just to come to me.

“I got a lot of positive feedback from that, both in the group and one to one. I had been in a bad situation – not to the extent of what happened with Keeno – and knew what it felt like to be low, depressed, having anxiety etc. It takes over your life and it’s horrible. Talking is the best way to get through it.”

McKenzie believes the clubs and ice hockey in general could do more to help, with players often left to their own devices to deal with emotional or mental health issues. One former player, Nick Rothwell, has set up a support network for players but McKenzie would like to see others get involved.

“The truth is that clubs say the door is always open and players can go in and talk any time about anything,” he adds. “But, from my experiences throughout my career, there’s never really been anything proactive with this kind of thing. Clubs never really initiate a conversation about mental health. It would only be if a player went to them.

“I’m pretty sure if you asked 200 hockey players if they’d ever struggled with stuff before at least 70 percent would say yes. Especially the older ones. But most of them just keep it in.

“When Keeno passed away there was a big thing at the time about mental health and having to do something. But now if you look at social media, especially around hockey, there’s nothing. It’s like it’s already been forgotten about.

“In the NHL [National Hockey League] they look after players once they’ve finished playing. Unfortunately in this country when you finish playing you’re largely on your own. We need a players’ union but I can’t see it happening any time soon to be honest.”

McKenzie could be the poster boy of any mental health support campaign, someone brave enough to address his issues and reap the benefits.

“I feel a lot better now,” he confirms. “I’m in a good headspace and been able to better deal with things that crop up. That’s why I feel in a better place to try to help others.”