Content warning: This story addresses suicide and other mental health issues and may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or is in emotional distress, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or at 988lifeline.org.
STAMFORD, Conn. — Cooper Cleaves took a look around from the ice at Terry Conners Rink and marveled at what he saw.
There were the players on the ice with him — some longtime teammates, some he’d just met that night two weeks ago. In the stands among the sold-out hundreds, plenty of familiar faces and also ones he’d never seen before. In the corner of the rink, NHLers he’d watched at Madison Square Garden, prepping for the game after his.
“It was just awesome,” said Cleaves, a soon-to-be high-school senior and future Dartmouth College student and hockey player. His thoughts, as did those of just about everyone else in the rink that night, turned to the reason they were all there, to his friend. “It showed how much Hayden meant to everyone there, the kids he played hockey with, his friends and family.
“He would have loved it.”
Hayden Thorsen is the reason all those people packed into a hockey rink. It was the first event to promote The Shoulder Check, a project born out of the worst circumstance in the lives of so many of the people at Terry Conners Rink.
Hayden took his own life on May 26, 2022, at age 16. Just about everyone who encountered him, either as a rising young goalie in the tri-state area or a junior at Darien High School in the next town over from Stamford, said the same thing: He was the friend who checked in on you. He was the teammate who had a hand on your shoulder, asking what’s up. He was the motivated athlete in the high-performance training center, working to become like the NHL players who also trained there.
“Never in a million years,” said Ben Prentiss, who has trained dozens of pro hockey players out of his gym in Stamford for the last 20 years as well as younger players like Hayden. “He brought such lightness to every situation.”
From this tragedy came The Shoulder Check — “a movement,” as Hayden’s father, Rob Thorsen puts it, to make peer-to-peer mental-health outreach as normal and routine as a shooting drill in a hockey practice or a group study session.
Hayden’s parents, Rob Thorsen and Sarah Thompson, put their purpose together. Prentiss, whose gym Thorsen trained in, signed on as a board member; so did Gary Zegras, who helps run the Mid-Fairfield youth hockey program where Hayden played and where Zegras’ son, Trevor, got his start as a youth player.
Sponsors include Madison Square Garden. Rob Thorsen said he’s been contacted by people around North America, seeking to spread The Shoulder Check’s simple message: reach out. Check in. Make contact. It’s a way to make mental health a casual topic of conversation, not just in hockey locker rooms but across all sports and all spaces where people congregate.
“From the time we were at the church last year even, I just felt the support, that hand on my shoulder,” Rob Thorsen said. “It’s one of those ironies where it’s like, you suddenly see the best in people in the worst possible situation. And I think we just brainstormed this idea to keep that going. It can’t be bad to feel like people are there.”
The Centers for Disease Control published its data on suicides for 2022 and the numbers are horrific: The number of Americans who took their own lives last year was 49,449, up 2.6 percent from 2021. The only age group that saw a decrease was actually the youngest cohort measured, ages 10-24, which declined by 8.1 percent. But that’s still 6,529 suicides among teens and young adults in 2022.
Hockey has never been viewed as a sensitive space. It’s a violent sport and athletes are not typically top of mind when we think about people struggling with day-to-day mental-health problems. If you want to throw in the athletes who live and play and train in Fairfield County, Conn. — referred to as the “Gold Coast” — then it may feel as if the problems of teenagers and young adults with so much privilege aren’t that important.
The need for conversations on mental health in the hockey world has been there for a while now. Spencer Knight was one of the NHL players on hand for The Shoulder Check’s pro game. Knight is 22, a 2019 first-round pick, and, like Hayden, a goalie who grew up in Darien and the Mid-Fairfield hockey program.
Knight also spent the bulk of last season away from the Stanley Cup finalist Panthers, enrolled in the joint NHL-NHLPA Player Assistance program.
“(Connecticut hockey) is a small community,” Knight said. “Everybody kind of knows each other and then when you get even closer in this specific area with Darien and around here, it’s a really tight-knit group. To see how many people have come out to this and are so supportive is special.”
To a player, the NHLers who showed up for The Shoulder Check event saw a need for a project like this.
“It’s a difficult world for kids to grow up in now, and I think doubly so for young athletes,” Chris Kreider said. “Sometimes there could be this hypermasculine identity associated with athletics and playing through stuff, whether it be physical or mental. Being a man and being mature is about talking about feelings. It’s about looking out for the people around you. It’s a small thing but in the long run, very big.”
“I was all for it when I heard about the idea and something I was pretty passionate about,” Trevor Zegras said. “It’s a great motto to check in with your friends because you never really know what’s going on with them.”
Rob Thorsen said Shoulder Check never really would have come together if not for Hayden’s friends and teammates. Hayden’s parents received so many letters, emails and texts from people in Hayden’s orbit — old teammates from the New Jersey Titans when the family lived in Brooklyn; current Mid-Fairfield teammates and Darien High schoolmates plus teachers, administrators and so many others from their son’s life — that they put together a 400-page book to keep them all in one place.
“You see all these people who he knew and made an impact on,” Rob Thorsen said, “and you think, he was just starting to figure out who he was in this world. And we discovered that Hayden was that person who checked in on people, who sent the text or put the hand on a shoulder. We wanted to do … something.”
Teammates like Cleaves and Jack Genovese, who played mites with Hayden in New York, were part of what was essentially a teen workshop on how to best promote a mental health cause that’s peer-to-peer. “This is something that’s driven by the kids,” Gary Zegras said. “We want them to make this part of their training, basically, the same way you work on hockey skills.”
And it’s a way to make sure everyone knows what Hayden was about.
“We went to the Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament (in 2019) with the Junior Rangers and we were down to Kelowna with a couple minutes left,” Genovese said. “And Hayden was just diving all over the place, keeping us in this game. We tied it, won it in OT. It was the best performance I’ve ever seen by a goalie. He was legit.”
“I’ve known a lot of goalies since I started playing and I’ve never met anyone like Hayden,” Cleaves said. “He was a big (6-foot-2) kid, with all the goalie gear on he could be kind of intimidating, but he was never, ever like that. Just the chirps, the energy he gave off — he was the center of attention, loved being in the middle of it all.”
Genovese plays for the Long Island Gulls. His team wore commemorative patches to honor Hayden this past winter, but he said incorporating The Shoulder Check into his team’s routine is a better way to honor Hayden and to promote better mental health and camaraderie among his teammates.
“This should be everywhere,” he said. “Schools, hockey, every sport. Everyone should Shoulder Check. Our team is really into the idea of promoting it and I think it can be something that every team can use. It’s going to spread fast.”
Rob Thorsen has made contact with the local NHL teams to hold Shoulder Check nights at home games. The NHL helped promote the charity game, giving Trevor Zegras the use of the NHL’s television studio to make a promo. Darien High School, which had three students who took their own lives during the 2021-22 school year, may start incorporating Shoulder Check into its school programs.
Ben Prentiss has framed jerseys of nearly all his famous clients on the walls of the Prentiss Hockey Performance gym — walk among the weights and mats and you’ll see easily recognizable Ranger jerseys of Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Kreider, Martin St. Louis, plus local players like Max Pacioretty, Matt Moulson and Jonathan Quick.
The first jersey you see when you walk in is one with Ranger colors (Mid-Fairfield uses the red, white and blue), a No. 40 and THORSEN across the nameplate.
“People are asking and they will ask, ‘Who’s Thorsen with the Rangers?’ And then I get a chance to tell them about Hayden,” Prentiss said. “I didn’t tell Rob and Sarah about us putting the jersey there until pretty recently. We’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands of hockey players come through here over the years and this. … We just wanted to be able to let people know about him and have him have that special place on the wall.”
Rob and Sarah and their daughter, Elke, have “days where we feel optimistic, and then days where it’s not as optimistic,” Rob Thorsen said. Starting the #HT40 Foundation and Shoulder Check has given them a purpose and a way to make sure, as with Hayden’s jersey on the wall in the Prentiss gym, that he’s not forgotten. That who he was meant something and it can be carried on even though Hayden isn’t here.
“We can never know what was going on in Hayden’s head,” his father said. “It’s just … Hayden needed a Hayden.”
Hayden Thorsen was on a path to hockey success. Most likely a college scholarship. Maybe the pros. He might have become a household name among hockey fans in the same way as players like Zegras, Fox, Kreider, Knight and the others who skated at Terry Conners Rink on Aug. 3.
We don’t get to find out what kind of player he would have been. The Shoulder Check came from a horrible situation, but it may at least be able to spread the message of what Hayden Thorsen was about as a person, to help countless others who need a hand on their shoulder.
(Top photo of Hayden Thorsen: Rob Thorsen)