Jeff O'Neill (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Few professions require more air travel than pro athletes like NHLers. That makes life hell for the select few who are afraid of crashing every time they leave the ground.Jeff O’Neill couldn’t believe his eyes. He’d just hopped on a stationary bike at the training facility of the Carolina Hurricanes and started peddling when he turned on the TV and flipped to CNN. The first thing he saw was two planes crashing into the World Trade Centre. “I was like, ‘What the f---?’ ” O’Neill said. “I turned to (a teammate) on the bike beside me and said, ‘I just left a guy’s office who told me flying is the safest thing I can do.’ ” O’Neill was witnessing the attack by al-Qaeda in New York City. Only minutes earlier, he’d left the office of a psychiatrist who’d bombarded him with a bevy of statistics that concluded air is the safest way to travel. The shrink had tried to cure O’Neill of his crippling fear of flying, which haunted him his entire career spanning 11 NHL seasons with the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs. O’Neill’s fear of flying wouldn’t be cured on September 11, 2001. It still isn’t, and it’s an occupational terror shared by many other players. Being an NHLer offers many perks, not the least of which is potential untold riches, but one of the drawbacks is the amount of travel. For most players, it’s a fact of NHL life, but for those with a fear of flying, travel can be unbearable. Last season, the San Jose Sharks logged a league-high 57,612 miles. That’s a lot compared to the New York Rangers’ airtime, which was a little more than half that at 29,839 miles. West Coast teams often complain about the burden of their travel schedule. Oh well, they get the weather. Wayne Gretzky confessed to The Canadian Press he was a white-knuckle flyer. “I admit it,” he said, “I get scared on planes. I know I never used to be scared, but there have been a few close calls in the last couple of years.” It didn’t seem to hamper The Great One’s ability to play the game. Others weren’t so fortunate. Boston Red Sox right fielder Jackie Jensen, a three-time all-star who was the American League most valuable player in 1958, quit baseball after 11 seasons because of his intense fear of flying. Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned down the opportunity to meet president Obama after his team won the Super Bowl in 2008 because he didn’t want to make the flight to Washington, D.C. NFL coach-turned famous broadcaster John Madden was so afraid of flying he elected to travel across America to games in a souped-up bus dubbed the Madden Cruiser. Madden graduated from California Polytechnic State two years before the football team was involved in a plane crash in 1960 that resulted in the deaths of 16 players and six others, and it has been suggested that messed with his head. Even heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali’s stomach would float like a butterfly and sting like a bee at the mere mention of an upcoming flight. There have been 26 plane crashes involving sports teams. In 2011, the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team from the Kontinental League was wiped out when its Yak-Service Yakovlev-42 ran off the runway during departure. Forty-four of the 45 people on board perished, including long-time NHL defenseman Brad McCrimmon, who was the team’s coach. The plane was unsafe and shouldn’t have been in operation. If a player fears flying, it wouldn’t matter if the entire plane were made of the stuff they make that little unbreakable black box from. Fear is fear. Rick Vaive played 16 seasons in the NHL and World Hockey Association and hated every flight he took. “Not just a little,” he said. “A lot. I’ve never gotten used to flying. A lot depends on the weather. If there is bad weather, I just freak out.” Vaive recalled one particular flight when his Buffalo Sabres played an afternoon game in Boston. About halfway back to Buffalo the pilot announced the plane was heading into bad weather and that in the next half hour the passengers would have to buckle up. Vaive and a teammate, goaltender Clint Malarchuk, were seated at the back of the plane and decided they had better use the facilities while it was still smooth flying. Vaive was sitting on the edge of his seat waiting for Malarchuk to finish in the bathroom when, all of a sudden the plane just dropped. Both of them hit the ceiling. Everybody else was strapped in. “I’ll be honest with you, that was probably the most frightening 45 minutes of my life,” Vaive said. “I don’t think there was a person on that plane that thought we were going to make it.” Former teammate Bob McGill recalled travelling with Vaive on a plane from Winnipeg to St. Louis in rough weather. During the four-hour excursion, there were a number of times when the aircraft went into a free fall. “It was like we were dropping out of the sky,” McGill said. “It was friggin’ scary. Ricky was screaming and yelling so loud, it actually made everybody else calmer, because he was so comical.” Vaive and O’Neill agreed that sleeping the night before a road trip was nearly impossible. And both admitted to self-medicating before getting on the plane in an effort to calm their nerves. O’Neill wasn’t always afraid of flying. It snuck up on him while on vacation. Flying from Mexico to a connecting flight in Dallas, O’Neill woke up from a nap and had a panic attack. “I didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “I literally thought I was going to meet my maker that day.” The connecting flight later that day from Dallas to Toronto was sheer hell and O’Neill has never been OK with flying since. Vaive and O’Neill agree their fear affected their game. Often they were tired from a lack of sleep due to anxiety and couldn’t play at a high level. O’Neill recalled a road game in Nashville after a rough flight when all he could think about was the return flight that night. “I had a hard time focusing on the game,” he said. Once on a flight from Phoenix to Toronto, O’Neill asked the trainer for “something” to calm his nerves, but it only made his anxiety worse. He tried playing cards with his teammates in an effort to take his mind off his fear. It didn’t work: “I was so nervous, I literally had to pee every five minutes.” Even if you aren’t a Nervous Nellie, there’s no avoiding the occasional nasty flight. It’s the nature of the beast. Tiger Williams was one of the toughest guys during his playing days, accumulating 3,966 penalty minutes in his celebrated 14-year career with Toronto, Vancouver, Hartford, Detroit and Los Angeles. He recalled a flight to Atlanta on a turbo prop job when the plane hit severe weather and was tossed like a salad at T.G.I. Friday’s. It had to make an emergency landing in Cincinnati to wait out the storm. “The plane did not smell very good,” Williams said. “A lot of guys lost their cookies.” The odds of being killed in a single airline flight are 1 in 29.4 million, and the number of fatalities per million flight hours is 12.25. The survival rate of passengers on a fatal crash is 24 percent. Those numbers should come as relief to anyone with a fear of flying, but they don’t. “It’s not just about me,” Vaive said. “One of the big things that always went through my mind was the fact I had kids. I wanted to see my boys grow up. I could block a lot of things out of my mind when playing hockey and golf, but I could not get the thought of crashing out of my mind.” That’s what happens when you have a fear of flying. This feature appears in the Nov. 3 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.