Wellwood's life shaped by father's mental illness

Updated: April 3, 2007, 12:52 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

It doesn't take long before the kitchen table in Rick Wellwood's suburban Windsor townhouse is covered with photo albums.

The home he built with his own hands; the backyard rink with the water-filled oil drums that gave the ice surface that unmistakable NHL sheen; the old-style roller skates without the laces into which Wellwood's son Kyle would leap from near the bottom of the basement staircase and tear around, hockey stick firmly in hand.

Kyle Wellwood (42)
AP Photo/Ian Barrett,CPKyle Wellwood says hockey was always a refuge when things got tough at home.

Like all such photographs, the pictures in Rick Wellwood's well-worn albums hide as much as they reveal.

The images of a smiling Kyle in various hockey jerseys don't, for instance, hint at the strong belief the immensely talented 23-year-old might well be the smartest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the smartest player, but perhaps the smartest person in the organization.

The albums do not hint at Rick's battles with mental illness, battles that have tested the family's mettle and helped define the paths each family member has and will follow.

The images, static and one-dimensional, certainly cannot begin to suggest how one set of circumstances might have led to the other, and how they might continue to coexist long into the future.

"He's probably been the best he's been now," Kyle Wellwood said of his father in a recent interview. "There were always times when he'd be doing good and he'd have a relapse or something would happen. The bad times are rare and don't last too long, a couple of days."

If Rick Wellwood had battled cancer or muscular dystrophy, the story of Kyle's growth and maturation as both an NHL player and a young man would have been celebrated against such a backdrop. That Rick Wellwood has suffered from a bipolar condition for years means the path followed by the entire family has been no less rocky or emotional, no less pivotal to Kyle's development, but has also been shrouded in whisper and rumor. At least, from the outside.

Ask Rick about his battle with what has been diagnosed as a bipolar condition and what he believes is really a character disorder brought on by a dysfunctional home life, and there is nothing but candor.

"People who know me, they know who I am. We talk about everything," he told ESPN.com. "My history is my history and what's happened has happened. Most people who think they are completely sane are usually a long way from it. People who judge me are just ignorant."

According to psychiatric journals, people diagnosed with a bipolar condition often suffer long periods of unpredictable mood swings. Manifestations of bipolar disorder can include mania, paranoia or clinical depression. There are wide variations in terms of how long these mood swings last and the level of dysfunction they create. Most who suffer from the condition require medication and therapy, also in varying degrees.

Wellwood has, in spite of his condition, settled into a satisfying career as a bylaw enforcement officer for the town of Tecumseh, a fast-growing community on the eastern edge of Windsor. He works with various groups in ensuring that development projects follow the town's requirements.

He worked for 11½ years with General Motors, 4½ as a production supervisor. He has a bachelor of applied science degree in industrial engineering from the University of Windsor and is registered with the Professional Engineers of Ontario. He not only built his own home, but he also helped restore a vintage tractor from parts. He is on the board of directors of a local residential home for people with acute mental illness. He goes to church and sings in the choir and has surrounded himself with people who respect him and understand him.

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"He's got a lot of positive things in his life," said his son, who believes his interpersonal skills were shaped, and helped, by dealing with his father. "Sometimes he was hard to deal with. When it's mental illness, it's very unpredictable and it affects everybody that he loves. I still don't have too much of a grasp on it. He's certainly working on getting better every day."

Rick was a fine hockey player in his own right, but a rocky home life disrupted many elements of his life, not the least of which was sport. He recalls playing softball and having his father tell him he was a terrible player and he was no good. While trying out for a local hockey team as a boy, Rick was disappointed to learn he'd been cut from the team. His father told him he'd been left off the team because "some men" at the arena didn't like Rick's father. Those shadowy men became symbolic of Rick's mental confusion.

"They didn't ever exist. They only existed in my dad's mind," Rick said. "But everywhere I've gone in my life, there's been those scary men that are out to get me. And they don't exist."

When Rick was 9 years old, his parents banished his older sister from the house and forbade him from ever speaking about her. "My dad never mentioned her ever again," he said.

He recalls his mother giving him an aspirin and then warning him never to talk about his sister's situation to the neighbors. Once, after she left, his sister sent $5 to her younger brother, but his parents forced him to send the money back.

Later, as an adult, Rick was diagnosed as being bipolar.

"I don't know if I buy that, but it's certainly a character disorder," he said. "For me and my situation, it was all environmental. Things that I loved were taken out of my life too often and too early."

There was, the elder Wellwood said, no epiphany, no Hollywood moment when he began to turn a corner, but rather a gradual process moved forward by his own determination to understand and fix things. In his mid-to-late 20s, "When I crashed, I looked at the situation and I just said, 'I do not know what I'm doing,'" he said.

And so his search for an answer evolved into a search for the truth about who he was.

"People who succeed are fundamentally truth tellers," Rick said. "I think I'm at the point where I like myself a lot of the time. I think I'm a better person. I just think you get to the place that you just finally know it's a human condition and you feel almost more honored and proud that some pretty challenging things were put in front of you."

There are, of course, ties that bind all families, from generation to generation, father to mother to son and so on. Sometimes, those ties are silk threads; others times, they are strands of barbed wire. For the Wellwood family, the ties are some of both.

"It was definitely really hard on the family," Kyle said. "Without hockey, I don't know where I would have been. When you're out on the ice, you don't think about anything else. When things weren't going right in the house, it was a good idea to get outside.

"I don't think I was ever scared," he added. "Definitely, it wasn't what you'd want as a kid growing up. You don't want anyone in your family to be sick. I just realized it was going to be a part of life."

Although Rick and his wife Donna split up when Kyle was a teen, a strong connection between the parents and their three children appears to have survived. Donna, a Windsor firefighter, lives in the family home in Oldcastle and has kept Wellwood as her last name. When Kyle asked for a trade back to Windsor from Belleville near the end of his major junior career, he moved into his father's place. Wellwood's younger brother, Eric, lives with Rick and is a Windsor Spitfires prospect; he also has a sister, Michelle, who is a year older.

"I just told my kids, 'There's nothing wrong with you, it's me struggling.' It's like alcoholism. You just reach a point where you're just not functioning very well," Rick said. "All of those negative controls -- anger, resentment -- they're all linked to mental illness."

Earlier this season, when Kyle was recovering from surgery to correct hip and groin problems, both his mother and father were regular visitors to his Toronto home. "I think I'm a cross between [my mom and dad]," Kyle said. "They're both very hardworking, but in different ways."

Kyle's mother finds it amusing that her middle child has become something of a hockey savant.

"We all laugh at that. He would never come and read a book [as a child]. You couldn't get him to read for anything," she told ESPN.com. "He was a late talker."

Kyle Wellwood #42 and Chad Kilger #18
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesKyle Wellwood, right, missed almost three months of this season following hernia surgery.

Perhaps it was from being a middle child or maybe just being content to observe what was going on, but regardless, Kyle hated going to bed. At age 3, he would often stay up with his father, watching hockey until he struggled to stay awake. One night, trying to distract him on the way to bed, Donna asked who was winning the hockey game.

"I'm going to play hockey," he told his startled mother. Sure, she said, lots of little boys play hockey. "No," he replied. "I'm going to play in the NHL."

It's difficult to separate the hockey player Kyle Wellwood has become from the circumstances from which he emerged; he is a thoughtful, different, definitely outside-the-box kind of guy, on and off the ice.

"Kyle is a very interesting guy. His skill level is incredible," offered former AHL coach and veteran NHLer Doug Shedden, who coached Wellwood for two years with the Leafs' farm team in St. John's, Newfoundland, and now coaches in Finland. "He's got more moves than a box of Ex-Lax. This guy is a very unique person. I think he's a genius."

One person close to the Leafs recalled a meeting between coach Paul Maurice and Wellwood in which Maurice described the game as being about a series of starts and stops. Wellwood quickly disagreed. No, it's a game of time and space, he reportedly shot back.

Both are right to a degree. For those less-skilled players, it is about stopping and starting and keeping pace. For those with that extra hockey gene called creativity, it is a different game. And it's a different game for Wellwood. He knows it. His father calls him a "mastermind," the kind of person who sees all of the possibilities in a split second, whether it's on a chessboard or a hockey rink.

"He does things with the puck," Maurice said, suggesting Wellwood's hands and vision are in tune in a way that separates him from the vast majority of NHL players.

Leafs forward Matthew Stajan is probably Wellwood's closest NHL friend. The two played junior together in Belleville and St. John's, played on the same World Junior Championship team, and then teamed up in Toronto when the AHL team moved there last season.

"He sees the play two passes before it happens," Stajan said. "It's a special talent to have."

Off the ice, the two hang out frequently. "He's his own person. He says things the way they are. I guess I'm just used to him. We get along great," Stajan said. "If you're not around him all the time, maybe you'd think he was a unique person, a little different. But not in a bad way.

"He doesn't have a TV at home. He reads a lot. He's a smart guy," Stajan said. "He knows what's going on in the world. He's probably one of the brightest guys, even though you might not know from meeting him."

Paul Dennis, a Maple Leafs staff sports psychologist, said the Leafs were made aware of Rick's mental history, but it has had no impact on how the team has treated Kyle. In fact, Dennis praised the elder Wellwood's candor in speaking about his journey, suggesting society would be a better place if more people shared Rick's honesty. Dennis first met Kyle Wellwood prior to the 2001 draft, where Toronto took Kyle with the 134th overall pick.

"From a personality standpoint, nothing [about Kyle] has changed," Dennis said. "He has tremendous self-confidence. He is tremendously self-aware."

"I don't think it's that I see anything different. I think it's just from trial and error," Wellwood said of his hockey smarts. "You recall, for instance, when you might have got caught flat-footed in the past or had a play that worked. And then you skate to where the puck ought to go."

There are still occasions, he acknowledges, "when you think you're not going to be good enough to be the player you want to be."

So, what now for Kyle Wellwood? So much is possible. So much is unknown.

There remains debate about the role of genetics on mental illness, something Wellwood acknowledges he has considered. "I'll definitely keep a close eye on it," he said.

But whatever unfolds, it appears Wellwood will have a helping hand.

"I don't know if any of my kids will ever have trouble," Rick conceded. "I just know I won't be afraid to help them."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.