Malarchuk tells all for the benefit of others

Clint Malarchuk had no desire to sugarcoat his autobiography. His life has had ugly moments. He nearly died from his wounds, both accidental and self-inflicted. He suffered lows that caused embarrassment and confusion. He was a cruel husband while downing pills and alcohol.

He knew he could help people by telling his story. The problem – and it was a big one – was he had to relive the story in order to tell it.

“I hated writing it,” Malarchuk said of “A Matter of Inches” (Triumph Books, 272 pages, $25.95). “It was one of the hardest things I ever did, to go back and all that emotion and everything. If I was going to do it, I wanted to just get everything out there. I didn’t want to half-way anything. It’s a book, so it should be the real deal.

“That made it really hard to do. I almost quit a few times, and I did. I backed out and I’d go, ‘OK, I’ve got to pick it up here and try again.’ ”

The intense labor was worth it. “A Matter of Inches,” released last month in the United States and in October in Canada as “The Crazy Game,” has helped people who are caught in the same mental-illness whirlwind that stirred Malarchuk’s life.

“I’m so glad I did it because it’s very gratifying that it’s reaching people and helping people,” Malarchuk said. “When you play in the NHL, it’s your aspiration as a kid and a young teenager, and you think it’s your purpose in life. Then you retire and the next best thing is probably coaching, so then I coached. I thought that was great, a good purpose.

“Now I look back with all the things that happened, almost dying a few times and living through this, I feel my purpose is to talk about it, to help people, to write the book.”

Before sitting down for a long talk Friday in the lobby of his Walden Avenue hotel, the retired Sabres goaltender spent time emailing folks who had written to him. The emails come every day from people who read the book and see themselves or someone they love in Malarchuk, who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They’re mostly, ‘Thank you for opening the discussion on this, for being forthright and honest. I can relate,’ ” Malarchuk said. “The other ones are people with loved ones that they couldn’t really understand and didn’t know what those people were really feeling or going through because it’s such a hard thing to describe.”

Malarchuk and co-author Dan Robson describe the goaltender’s life in vivid detail. They don’t waste any time. The prologue takes readers to the cloudy afternoon of Oct. 7, 2008, when Malarchuk’s wife, Joanie, had just returned home after leaving because of an argument:

“She opened the back door of our bungalow and called for me. I sat on the bench, eyes to the mountains. Sipped my beer. The .22 was on the table in front of me. Everything was a blurry rage, a crazy haze. Impossible to turn off. Impossible.

“She didn’t think anything of the gun sitting beside me. There were plenty around the ranch. We used them to get rid of the things that needed to be gone. I grabbed it, stood up and faced her.

“Is this what you want?” I yelled.

“What?” She didn’t understand.

“I can’t do it anymore,” I said. “I can’t turn my head off. This is all I can think about. I can’t live inside my head anymore.”

“Joanie didn’t have time to scream. I pushed the barrel under my chin and pulled the trigger.”

The bullet went through his chin, tongue and palate. It stopped between his eyes, just before his brain, sparing him. A matter of inches.

“The fact that I shot myself certainly gives me credibility to the depths of depression,” Malarchuk said Friday. “I used to curse God about my illness: ‘Take me or take this away.’ Now I look back and go, ‘Well, He wanted me to go through that so I could give to other people the support and feelings that we’re not alone.’ That’s kind of how I have to look at it, and it keeps me going.

“The biggest thing that people can convey back to me is they don’t feel alone. They don’t feel like it’s hopeless. The thing I’m realizing more now that I’m out there and people are opening up to me, there’s a lot of us out there. If you’re not affected by it, you know somebody. You might not even know they have it.”

Malarchuk’s illnesses will never go away. He controls them with help from medication, experience and Joanie, who accompanied him to Buffalo and speaks to those who live with the mentally ill.

“There’s people like me, but there’s more people that have to live with someone like me or have a friend like me,” Malarchuk said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m on top of things, and if I start feeling like I’m going to struggle or am struggling, I have to step back and kind of get my feet under me. I have to always be conscious of my emotions and what I’m thinking and what’s going on in my life and make sure I monitor everything.

“In some ways I put a little pressure on myself that I can’t slip back because now I’m out there. If people see that, they’re going to go, ‘Oh crap.’ You want that hope, but I’ve been honest so I’ve just got to keep being honest. Hopefully, I won’t go deep into depression anymore.”

As the book neared release, Malarchuk slipped back toward anxiety and depression. He used his hand to illustrate the intensity, putting it near the floor to show his lowest points and setting it a foot higher to show how he felt this spring.

“I was more like motivated or fueled again because that was just a bit of it,” he said. “Instead of going into it, I was like, ‘God dang it, this is what people are feeling. This is why you’re doing the book.’”

The book, of course, also details the first time he almost died. A skate sliced his jugular vein in Buffalo, and blood poured from his throat onto the Memorial Auditorium ice in March 1989. He returned to the arena days later, waved to an adoring crowd and was back in the crease within two weeks.

From then on, Western New York has embraced the 53-year-old Alberta native as one of its own. Lines of fans greeted him during book signings the previous three days, and the Sabres Store sold out of its copies while he was there.

“My story with Buffalo is probably pretty unique as far as an athlete and a city,” Malarchuk said. “It wasn’t like I was an elite superstar, and it wasn’t like I played here for 15 years or 10 years, you know? When you consider I was here for parts of four years, the accident is what endears us to each other.

“It’s a very blue-collar sports town. They love their sports, and they love their athletes. If you’re humble and nice to them, man, they’re going to like you. But what happened to me was the fact I came back so quickly from the injury. First of all, you know how horrific and graphic and all that, then I came back so quick they embraced that.

“The support that they showed me, I still have over 2,000 get-well cards. I have them in my garage in a big bag. I think I answered every one.”

He’ll continue to answer the fans and reply to the people like him. His story can help people, and it’s one worth telling.

“It’s been a good ride,” Malarchuk said. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, he’s had a tough life.’ I’ve had a pretty good life, too, you know? I think just my highs and lows have been a little more drastic.

“I’m very fortunate that I played in the NHL and I coached in the NHL. I’ve got a lot of things that I’m very happy about that happened to me in my life. The bad things, well, I think they’re just part of growth.”