When Austin Watson steps onto the ice this fall with the Senators, he will once again be wearing Number 16, a number he wears proudly as a tribute to Brian McGrattan. Many fans may think he is paying homage to McGrattan as the former Senators Enforcer, as Watson shares the same truculent style of play as the former NHL winger.
However, the 29-year old from Ann Arbour, Michigan, wears McGrattan’s
number for a much different reason: as a tribute to his journey off the ice, and his battles with substance abuse and mental health.
Austin’s own struggles with addiction and mental health were well-documented during his final years with the Nashville Predators. He was suspended by the NHL and entered into the League’s substance abuse and behavioral health program.
In 2018, Watson shared publicly that he had been dealing with depression, anxiety and addiction since the age of 18.
Today, Austin is an open book, and it’s not just because of the recovery milestones he’s hit to become a better father, partner, and teammate. The 6-foot, 200-pound forward also knows the importance of honesty and transparency in sharing his story for other players in the league facing similar issues. He hopes to continue to be a voice in a larger conversation around mental health in the NHL.
We caught up with the rugged Senators winger to talk about his journey and the upcoming 2021-2022 season.
Photography by Sean Sisk
You’re the oldest of 10 children. What was life like for you growing up?
Chaotic (laughs). But it was good. My parents moved to Florida when I was about 12, so I stayed in Michigan with my grandparents from 12 to 16 and kept playing hockey. I was the oldest, so it bodes well that I still have some of those older sibling tendencies… I’m very protective. I had one sister. Now we have two girls here, which is a lot different.
Growing up in Michigan in the 90s, were you a Red Wings fan? Who were some of your favourite players?
I was definitely a Red Wings fan. Steve Yzerman, Shanahan, Federov, they had a good team back then. It was really cool growing up in that era. It was fun to be a Red Wings fan as a kid.
You were drafted 18th overall in 2010 by the Nashville Predators. What was your draft day experience like? Did you have a good feeling that Nashville would pick you?
I didn’t know for sure that I was going to get drafted by Nashville, but I had a pretty good idea. The most nerve-wracking thing was going to LA. I had never been out there before. The not knowing how the day was going to go while sitting in the stadium was scary. I’m pretty sure I was sweating through my shirt (laughs). I was 18th overall, so while that was really cool, it also takes about two hours to get to that pick. I was just sitting up there in my suit, sweating, waiting, not knowing what was going to happen. When Nashville did come up, we had an idea that maybe it was possible. It was a good interview with them at the combine and we seemed to hit it off okay. It’s such a young age to be doing stuff like that. But overall, it was a really amazing experience.
Your first NHL goal came on April 23rd, 2013 against the Calgary Flames. You scored on Miikka Kiprusoff on a nice 3 on 2. What are your memories of that first goal?
That was crazy. That year was the lockout year, so the NHL season didn’t start till January, and we were playing in the American league before that for three months. Then a bunch of injuries started to happen in Nashville.
Though you never know for sure, you can start to get an idea of if you’re going to get a chance or not when you’re in the American league. We had guys that were going up and down because players were getting hurt.
It’s crazy how you remember everything clear as day about scoring your first goal. It was such a cool feeling. Nashville has a really good atmosphere in the rink. It was really loud, and that really made it.
On October 10th of last year, you were acquired by the Senators in a trade with Nashville. Tell us about that transition, and leaving an organization you had been with for ten years in the middle of a pandemic?
When I got traded, I was definitely a bit upset. Hockeywise, that was all I had ever known. I had played with those guys for a long time, even in the minors. I had some really good friendships with that team.
Moving during the pandemic was difficult. We viewed our house over Facetime, and getting over the border wasn’t easy. I drove over 16 hours and brought the dog and all of our things with me. Jen and Liv flew and met me here. Then we were in lockdown. It was definitely an abnormal experience, and we’re looking forward to getting a chance to go out for dinner and explore the city more.
You’ve said in previous interviews that this new chapter is a fresh start for you in more ways than one. Off-ice, how will this move help you to turn the page for you and your family?
Being in Nashville was complicated. There were some great moments, and some highs, like playing in the Cup finals and getting to know a lot of people in the city. But there was also some controversy and some struggles. So getting into a new organization, the baggage doesn’t come with us. We’re moving down the road.
Coming here is a fresh start. A chance to meet new people, and not having our past be in the back of everyone’s head while trying to perform at a professional level.
When you look back on some of the challenges that you and your wife have faced over the past few years in Nashville, how would you sum up the growth and the work you’ve done to put it behind you?
I think you’d have to ask others about the changes they’ve seen. But, I’m proud of where I’m at today. Sitting here, in a beautiful new home in Ottawa, with a couple of years on my contract here. It didn’t look promising two or three years ago. We as a family are proud that we did what we needed to do. We put our heads down and did the work, personally and in the household, and now life is getting good.
You’re very open about your personal road to recovery. What advice can you share for anyone going through similar struggles?
We could stay here for hours (laughs). I don’t like to give a ton of advice. For me, the people I respect and look up to now are those who aren’t afraid to share their experiences. There was a time where I sat there and was completely against asking for help, whatsoever. I thought I could do it on my own, I didn’t need help, and it wasn’t a big deal. But if you’re sitting there and saying those things to yourself, maybe it’s time to ask for help. There has to be a starting point. It doesn’t change overnight, either. There’s this idea that if you get help, whether it’s getting into rehab or a program, you’re fixed. Well, it’s not about being ‘fixed’. It’s about changing the way you read your life and living differently. It’s a day-to-day commitment, it’s not just over. It’s a daily effort to improve and use what you’ve learned to continue to get better.
Lets talk about mental health. How has your outlook on the importance of mental health, particularly in pro hockey and for men, changed?
I really think that we’re doing such a better job in North America and in sports. I think guys are beginning to get more comfortable with discussing this stuff. We don’t have to pretend like nothing affects us. I think it’s up to guys like me and others who have gone through these things to be open about it. You’ll see that I wear 16 in Ottawa because of Brian McGrattan. It’s a nod to his story and his ability to be so open about his struggles, in order to help others. It’s something that I, and the other guys, look up to. I mean he was the baddest dude on the block. If he can talk about his imperfections and struggles, then we can, too.
In the NHL we have a great program for anyone who needs it, family included. It’s all there for us. The more that guys continue to talk about their mental health, the more comfortable others will feel. We have a long way to go, but I think as a whole, it’s getting better.
Who were some of the guys on the team who made you feel comfortable and helped you to settle in?
I’ve spent a lot of time with Nick Paul. Pauly and I kind of understand each other. From a hockey perspective, things weren’t always easy. His story has been well documented. He’s cleared waivers a couple of times. Same for me, I spent three years in the minors, cleared waivers. It wasn’t easy. We connected on that kind of level.
All of the guys have been great. Chabot, Tkachuk, two of the young guys that are going to be leading this franchise for many many years. They were so welcoming and made it easy for us and the family to get settled in here. Those three really helped me to get comfortable with the organization and I think that’s been huge.
How big of an adjustment was it for you to play without fans this year?
It just wasn’t the same. The game is the same, and the systems and all that, but the energy that cheering fans… even booing fans… creates, was just not there.
When there’s a change or swing in momentum and it gets louder in the building, we can feel those things. And I guess you don’t know what you have ‘till it’s gone. I speak for all the guys when I say we really missed it this year. We can’t wait for it to come back.
You quickly endeared yourself to Senators fans by scoring in your first game with Ottawa against the Leafs, going bar down with a nice snap shot on January 15th of this year. Did you feel any of the rivalry with the Leafs this season, even without fans in the stands?
Big time. The rivalries between different teams are always interesting. In Nashville it was Chicago and Dallas, then you come here and it’s Toronto and Montreal. You know what to expect a bit, but until you step foot in it, you don’t get it. But you get it pretty early (laughs).
I really wish there would have been fans for that one.
How has being a father changed you as a person?
A complete 180. I still need me time, I play a lot of golf… but outside of that, everything revolves around them. Making sure they’re happy and they have what they need. They are two amazing girls. Liv, she’s a pistol. The little one is growing into herself too, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Let’s talk about your life away from the rink. How are you spending your summer?
I play a lot of golf. I’m really into it.
Tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say these names:
Nick Paul: Funny
Brady Tkachuk: Beast
Connor Brown: Spitfire
Tim Stützle: Superstar
Thomas Chabot: GQ
Artem Zub: Silent Assassin
Josh Norris: Newf
DJ Smith: The Boss
Who on the team would you say is the best dressed?
I can’t pick myself? (Laughs) I did call Tom GQ. He’s well-dressed. He’ll tell you himself… he’s got style.
Pauly. Nick Paul is hilarious.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I really enjoy reading. I’ve been reading a lot lately, especially at night. When I was first out of rehab, I had a hard time sleeping. So, I got into the routine of reading at night for 45 minutes to an hour. I read a lot of historical fiction, epics, things like that.
Where are some of your favourite places to eat at and/or visit in the Ottawa area?
We really haven’t gotten out much. We enjoyed Mati a lot, and Joey Lansdowne is a great hangout. I like the Lansdowne area.
What’s your best advice for aspiring hockey players?
If you enjoy it, keep at it. It’s so tough as a kid. You may not know if you want to play or if you really don’t, especially as a young Canadian kid. I mean hockey is what you’re supposed to do. So if you enjoy it, continue to do it. There’s going to be bumps along the way. Guys will get drafted, you’ll make a team, you’ll get cut, and so on… but if you thoroughly enjoy it, then keep at it. Perseverance is something that can get lost at that age a bit, but if you really love it, then just keep going.
Photography by Sean Sisk