Johann Franzen still struggles with aftermath of concussions
Johann Franzen hasn’t played since 2016: “I take anti-depressants and try to feel better again. But it quickly gets dark. Very dark.”
He was once a rare commodity in the NHL: A big-bodied sniper who carried his team when he scored goals in bunches. But Johan Franzen is a different person now than when he played with the Red Wings from 2005-06 to 2015-16.
Now, the 39-year-old Franzen is effectively retired because of the several concussions he sustained during his playing career.
Every day is a struggle for the man Steve Yzerman nicknamed “the Mule” during his first training camp with Detroit
He regularly experiences depression, anxiety and panic attacks and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Franzen always had a quirky, spontaneous and down-to-earth personality that made him stand out from his teammates. Now that persona is buried beneath his misery.
“All I can do … is to sleep and lay in my bed,” he told Swedish website SportExpressen. “I take anti-depressants and try to feel better again. But it quickly gets dark. Very dark.”
Franzen, who helped the Red Wings win the 2008 Stanley Cup with his 13 goals, suffered at least four concussions as a player.
He maintains a home in suburban Detroit with his family but has little contact with the team, although former teammates Henrik Zetterberg and Todd Bertuzzi visit him. He remains under contract to the Wings through the 2019-20 season, an 11-year deal worth $43.5 million.
In 602 regular season games, Franzen had 187 goals and 183 assists (370 points) with a high of 34 goals – along with Marian Hossa that season, the last time a Red Wing reached 30 goals – in 2008-09. The Mule also scored five goals in a game during the 2010-11 season.
He was at times moved to tears during the interview with reporter Gunnar Nordstrom and said he has difficulty retaining memory.
“It’s embarrassing,” Franzen said. “I can be speaking with somebody one night and the next day, forget that person. The brain didn’t … get it in.
“It’s embarrassing. Everything is embarrassing. Now I’m very open about being forgetful.”
He added that he can easily understand someone who gets caught up in substance abuse.
There were incidents late in Franzen’s career that he did not tell anyone about, including “getting concussions from nothing. But I kept a lot secret,” he said. “I could stop on the roadside on my way home after games and have a panic attack. I sat crying for an hour by the side of the road. No one knew about it.”
Franzen has visited numerous doctors and specialists in the world of concussions. But it doesn’t seem to help.
“Most of the time I think I am moving in the right direction,” he says, “but when I have down periods, there is nothing positive. I almost give up then. And it is even worse because you think you have been better for awhile.”
The native of Vetlanda, Sweden, often travels to his native country. He said he ultimately wants to return to Sweden permanently.
“It’s hard being in Detroit. It’s very hard. Many bad memories,” he said. “I still have many of my best memories here (in Detroit), but the last few years I have just wanted to leave. I don’t want to be inside these walls. There has been so much anxiety, panic and depression.
“I go to the mountains in the West sometimes. It’s enough to see mountains to feel a little better. As soon as I see a mountain, I feel better. Just to be outside in the nature.”
Franzen gives a lot of credit to his wife, Cissi, who wrote of the family’s struggles in a blog in early December. They have 7- and 5-year-old sons.
“I can’t understand that my wife is still with me,” Franzen said. “She’s been amazingly strong.
“I don’t know how she can sit here. She hates me pretty often, but … she’s pulling a lot of weight. I don’t know how she does it. She’s had to put up with a lot.”
And although she does what she can, it’s often not enough.
“Sometimes my whole world falls apart,” Franzen said. “And I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”