An NHL Legend, A Doctor & a Dog Help Addicts Find Hope

Aug. 19, 2022 — Among hockey fans, Kevin Stevens is a legend. A member of several teams, including the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers, the now 57-year-old was especially known for being a Pittsburgh Penguin during the team’s Stanley Cup championships in 1991 and 1992.

But the Bostonian is also a recovering addict whose life changed and when he was 28 years old made “one bad decision” one night.

“I had never done drugs in my life, but someone stuck cocaine in front of me,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was, but I tried it and that changed my life for the next 24 years.”

Stevens forged a long and often well-publicized battle for sobriety with many challenges along the way, including an opioid addiction due to a massive hockey injury (as well as continuing to use cocaine) and an arrest for dealing oxycodone in 2016.

When he entered a guilty plea in 2017, he vowed to turn his life around. Ever since, he has dedicated his life to help others through Power Forward, a nonprofit he started in 2018 that’s focused on raising awareness about addiction.

Bring on the Dogs

Today, Stevens, who currently works as a National Hockey League (NHL) scout, and one of his board members, Michael Hamrock, MD, a primary care and addiction medicine doctor at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston, have introduced a unique healing method to the list of offerings for people in recovery.

Called the DOER (Dog Ownership Enhancing Recovery) program, a trained support dog — in this case, a golden retriever named Sawyer — will be sent to live with 12 men living in a sober home in the Boston area, in a program that’s the first of its kind in the US

“For the entirety of my practice, my patients have told me over and over again how much their pet dogs have improved their physical and mental health, so I thought we should add this to one of our offerings,” Hamrock says. “I know this will help.”

The day Sawyer was introduced to the residents as part of a pilot program was a joyful one, Hamrock says.

“We brought Sawyer to the backyard and, while on a leash, he went to each resident individually,” he says. “They started patting him and playing with him. I could see the tremendous delight in their eyes.”

The goal: To add more dogs to the program, over time.

“I believe meetings, medications, spiritual care and having a sponsor help with recovery,” he says. “But dogs can provide safety, prevent loneliness, help you reestablish relationships, help you find purpose and value and offer unconditional love.”

And with overdose deaths in the US reaching record levels last year, Hamrock says the time is now to continuing innovating.

“We know the risk factors for heart disease, but we need a better understanding of the brain disease of addiction,” he says, noting that the acronym GAMES offers a good way to quantify the five risk factors: G (genes), A ( age of first drug use), M (treated or untreated mental health issues), E (exposure to opioids as a treatment for, say, chronic pain) and S (stress, especially from adverse childhood events) is a good way to quantify risk factors.

But a well-trained dog can mitigate some of those factors.

“We know dogs can reduce stress and enhance mental health,” he says. “We also know that pet dogs can help with accountability, create a caring environment, and fill the void of nurturing. We can really see a difference.”

Ask Stevens and he’ll tell you he’s excited about how service dogs might play a role in helping addicts stay in recovery.

“I think what Michael is doing is pretty neat,” he says. “When he brought this idea to the table, it made sense. Dogs are so great for people and they’re that bright spot in your day. Offering these residents the chance to take care of something that will make all the difference.”

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