“Can you give me 10 minutes, I just have a gator in my pond”
That what’s the voice on the other end said when I dialled him up in Naples, Florida, for what I thought was going to be a 15-20 chat about Rob Schremp’s life now, and brief NHL career from the past.
Instead, we chatted for almost an hour after he successfully grabbed the “only 4-foot gator” he spotted while bass fishing near his home. Interestingly enough, catching a ‘gator has been a life long ambition for Schremp, ever since his family visited friends in South Carolina during the summer when he was 12 years old.
“A couple of times they’d (his parents) be chatting and I’d be 10-15 feet from the gators, trying to figure out my angles,” he said.
While Rob Schremp likely envisioned a different path on June 26th, 2004, when he was a first round NHL pick, he seems happy and content these days with who he is and where he’s been. And it’s one interesting journey.
To understand Rob Schremp’s story you need to go back to Don Cherry’s Mississauga Ice Dogs drafting him first overall in the 2002 OHL priority selection. The draft took place about two weeks before Cherry sold the team, which Schremp says made things better initially. 74 points in 65 games earned him the OHL’s Rookie of the Year award, but things quickly went south early into his second season. Schremp says his contract included a small amount of money so his family could come watch him play and the new owners were not going to continue paying.
“I didn’t ask for a house or a car or a million dollars.”
He asked for a trade and three games into his second season was dealt to the London Knights. “I hate that I had to do that, but at that time I really felt I was picking my family’s side over a hockey club.”
With London, after some early tough love from Head Coach Dale Hunter, Schremp won a Memorial Cup in 2005 on home ice and put up dazzling numbers with 57 goals and 145 points in 57 games during his final year. He says he also earned a reputation in some team’s eyes as being a ‘spoiled brat’.
One of those teams may have included the club that drafted him 25th overall in 2004. He was the Oilers second first round pick that day, following Devan Dubnyk who was grabbed with the 14th overall selection.
“I never felt secure there, I never felt like I really fit in at all,” Schremp said, remembering the feeling he started to get during his first few meetings with the Oilers.
He does, however, own up to making mistakes along the way that didn’t help polish his image in management’s eyes. “Rookie camp we went out and had fun after and probably had to much fun. If I could take that one back I would.“
Another incident happened in his second training camp where he thought he was close to making the team, only to be tipped off he would be sent down. “Went out and like I said, drank — masked — what I was going through instead of dealing with it.”
Things never did get better as Schremp would play only seven games in total with the Oilers. “It always felt like I had a big mountain to climb to prove I wasn’t what people were talking about.”
It’s no secret the Oilers have been disastrous when it comes to developing players not drafted in the top five, and Schremp saw early signs of how Edmonton was very different from other organizations — and not in a good way. The Oilers shared a farm team with Pittsburgh in Schremp’s first AHL season. “They were around a lot, the big names in the organization,” said Schremp referring to then Pittsburgh Head Coach Michel Therrien. The next year, Edmonton moved its AHL team to Springfield and the communication wasn’t the same as what Schremp witnessed first hand from the Penguins organization who would play in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning once in the two years after sharing a farm team with the Oilers. “It just seemed like a big disconnect. I mean it’s so far away from Edmonton.”
The Islanders claimed Schremp off waivers in September of 2009, taking him four hours from home, meaning those closest to him could watch him live more often. He played almost 90 games over two seasons, putting up 47 points before finishing his NHL tour in Atlanta and heading overseas. After a successful year with MODO of the Swedish Hockey League, Schremp was eager to give the KHL a try joining Dynamo Riga, but things immediately spiralled into a disastrous situation and he found himself having to buy his way out of it.
“Three games in I found myself on the fourth line with no power play time and five games after that they’re yelling at me because I’m not scoring.” But production was the least of his worries. He caught a stomach bug and says the team tried to get out of his contract ‘in a very sleazy way,’ comparing his time playing in Riga, Latvia, to that of a ‘dancing monkey’.
At 26 years old, Schremp insists he had put his ‘wild’ days behind him, but the team didn’t believe him. “Essentially they tried to fire me by blood testing me for alcohol and I wasn’t drinking, I had the stomach flu.” Schremp figured his reputation had caught up with him again. “When I show up to your team and I’m acting like a professional and being a professional, that is who I am representing and that’s who I am right now. Don’t say ‘well we heard this about you when you were younger.’”
Despite having to pay his own way out of his KHL contract, it wasn’t all bad. He met his wife Marta in Latvia and they now have a 16-month-old daughter Stella. He also finished third in team scoring with MODO in his first year across the pond while being led by some pretty famous Swedes. “Markus Naslund was the GM, Peter Forsberg was the assistant general manager and Ulf Samuelsson was the head coach.”
But the biggest impact on his life came during his final season playing for EC Salzburg in Austria in 2017-18. For months he thought he was having mini strokes. His wife was pregnant with their first child and Schremp forced himself to see a doctor, eventually being diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
Fearful of taking prescription medications he asked for an alternative. “At that time I asked to use CBD and the doc laughed at me…almost like a ‘ha,’ and I was, ‘I guess not’”
Schremp tried a variety of prescription pills including Xanax, which according to the website Medical News Today, was the single most prescribed psychiatric medication in the United States in 2017. The side effects were not good. “When I got an anxiety attack I would take one but I’d turn into a mummy. The anxiety goes away but I was like, you can’t even barely function.”
Ironically, Schremp says taking anti-depressants is essentially the reason he wasn’t offered a contract after his final season in Austria. He says it also prevented him from continuing his career. “Someone had spread the word to another team I was going to sign with and when I went to sign there they said, ‘We hear you are messed up in the head and taking medicine.“
Hearing that led him to make a decision on the spot about his future. “That day that I got that phone call, I quit. I retired. I’m like that’s it, I’ll never play again.” That experience, Schremp says, forced him to talk about his mental health and now considers it a blessing. It’s even led to other athletes reaching out to him with gratitude.
After returning to North America he met up with Veda Sport at a pro camp in Florida and it was a life-changing meeting. Frequent anxiety attacks at night prevented Schremp from proper sleep until he started using CBD. “About a week in I slept like a baby after using the product. It was really my own proof, it’s all I needed.” Eight months later, Schremp is no longer on any prescription medication for his anxiety and depression.
He now works with Veda Sport, which uses cannabidiol (CBD) in various forms for athletes looking for alternatives.
When asked to estimate the percentage of players who used cannabis in some form when he was playing in North America he was quick to respond. “Massive. I’m not going to blow the horn but there’s a lot of guys.”
Schremp said he was one of the ‘massive’ amounts of players who used cannabis to help his undiagnosed anxiety and depression. “I used it and it was almost to run away, it was a mask, and I didn’t even realize it was a medicine at that time. I didn’t have the education, I was just trying to get away from being depressed. It made me happy. So instead of thinking about suicidal thoughts I would be then laughing and joking and enjoying my life. Fast forward 10-12 years later and we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, that actually does work,’ and doctors have done the research.”
Schremp hopes to see the day where cannabis in some form replaces opioids in recovery and is available to players after a game on the plane, but he’s not sure when that may happen in one of the big four North American sports. “I think some of the decision makers, some of them still think it’s better to grab a bourbon or a six-pack because that’s what they did.“
Thinking back on it, Schremp remembers his first anxiety attack as a 12 year old. The same year he almost caught his first ‘gator. Now 32 and thousands of miles travelled from his home in Fulton, New York, to Naples, Florida, Schremp has finally caught his ‘gator and wrestled his life away from anxiety and depression.