By Andrew Miller
Of The Post and Courier Staff
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – He had spent the previous three days partying at a friend’s wedding, and was coming down off an alcohol-induced high. That was when Matt Reid found himself on the couch of his Florence home, wondering how he had lost control of his life.
As his head began to clear and his thoughts turned to his future, the current South Carolina Stingrays winger began to realize that if he didn’t make some major changes in his lifestyle, then his hockey career — or worse, his life itself — might soon be over.
“I was probably at the lowest point I’d been at in a long time,” Reid said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Is this the way it’s going to be from now on? Is this how the rest of my life is going to be, going from one party to the next?’ I knew if I didn’t do something, everything that I cared about was going to be taken away from me.
“I realized that if I didn’t make some changes, and soon, I was probably going to be dead.”
Unlike many alcoholics, who live their lives in perpetual denial, Reid knew he had a problem. He wanted desperately to stop drinking. He just didn’t know how.
Reid had tried to stop drinking “a million times” on his own. He had gone a few days, a week, or even a couple of months without a drink, and pronounced himself cured. But each time he stopped, the wave of temptation flowed over him again. Soon afterward he would find himself at a party, and the vicious cycle would begin to repeat itself.
Sitting on his couch on that August afternoon, Reid called a close friend — Craig Norton, a work associate from outside hockey — and reached out for help.
“That was the toughest part,” Reid said. “It wasn’t admitting that I had a problem. I knew I had a problem. It was admitting to myself that I was out of control, that there was something in life I couldn’t control. I needed help. I couldn’t beat this thing by myself.”
Three days later, Reid checked himself into a rehabilitation center to begin a 28-day program.
“I learned so much about myself, and there was so much I didn’t see about myself,” he said. “I was putting just about everything before me and my family. You push everyone that’s close to you away and it kills them. When you sit back and look at it and think about what you’ve done to them. It’s frustrating because you can’t go back and change it. You can only make up for it, and that’s what I’m trying to do now.”
Reid has been sober for eight months, the longest stretch of his adult life. He believes this time, he’s finally beaten his addiction.
“This is the first time I’ve stopped drinking for me,” Reid said. “In the past, I did it for my family or I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do. I never did it for me. This time, I did it for me and I think that’s the difference.”
Reid has seen the damage alcohol can do. In 2002, former Pee Dee teammate Sandy Allan fell off a third-floor hotel balcony, suffering severe head trauma after an all-night drinking binge. Allan was in a medical-induced coma for several days after the accident.
“When I saw him laying there, I thought he was dead,” Reid said. “To see one of your best friends just laying there helpless, with blood coming out of his head, it was a wake up call for me.
“When Sandy had his accident, I had stopped drinking for about two or three months. But he and I had done a lot of partying together.”
Allan spent a painful year in rehabilitation learning how to walk and talk again.
“He hasn’t had a drink since that night, and that was three years ago,” Reid said. “In a strange way, that might have been the best thing that could have happened to him. He’s going to help a lot of people now because of what he’s been through.”
After getting out of the rehabilitation center, Reid went looking for a team. He had played four seasons with the Pee Dee Pride and had built a reputation as one of the league’s most intense players.
“Matt was one of the toughest guys I had to play against,” said Stingrays defenseman Trevor Johnson. “He’s not going to quit on a play. He skates every shift like it’s his last and those are the toughest guys to defend.”
The problem for Reid wasn’t his skill on the ice, but his reputation off of it. Last season he left Pee Dee in the middle of the season to play in England in hopes of escaping his past.
“I felt like I was getting a fresh start in England,” Reid said. “No one knew me, so it was like starting over again.”
It didn’t take long for him to slip back into his old habits.
“I always seem to find the guy or guys on a team that like to party,” Reid said.
In early September, Reid called South Carolina coach Jason Fitzsimmons in hopes of signing with the Stingrays.
“I had kind of always wanted to play in Charleston,” Reid said. “I knew Jason. I knew it was a great organization. I knew I could be successful here.”
Fitzsimmons agreed to bring Reid in under a “tryout” agreement that is usually saved for untested rookies.
“I was a little apprehensive about signing him,” Fitzsimmons said. “I think that’s why we started with a tryout agreement and not a straight contract. I didn’t want a guy that was going to drag other people down with him.”
Two days before training camp opened, Reid got a call from former Stingray Rob Concannon, who stopped drinking 11 years ago.
“He wanted me to know that he was here for me if I needed him,” Reid said. “I only knew Rob from playing against him and to be honest, I didn’t like him as a player. But I thought that was one of the classiest things a person could do. I’ve got a lot of respect for what he’s done with his life.”
Reid arrived for training camp sober and in shape. “At that point, I knew he was going to help us,” Fitzsimmons said.
Reid has done more than just help the Stingrays. Fitzsimmons said Reid and Joe Tenute carried the team through the rocky first six weeks of the season. In 56 games, Reid has compiled 54 points on 23 goals and 31 assists. He leads the ECHL in shorthand goals with six and is a major reason why South Carolina has one of the top penalty-kill units in the league.
“In my eyes, he’s the top penalty killer in the league this season,” Fitzsimmons said. “He plays with such intensity. He’s a high energy kind of guy, and the rest of the players really feed off of him. Offensively, he’s better than I expected. I couldn’t be happier for him, because I know what he went through to get here.”
Reid, who had scored 28 goals with the Pride during the 2002 season, didn’t expect to have this kind of success.
“I guess it’s the clean living,” he said, laughing. “My expectations were pretty low. I thought I’d be a third-line guy and work on the penalty kill. I didn’t expect this.”
Reid also has been pleasantly surprised by the support from not only his teammates, but from the community at large.
“The guys have been great, very supportive,” Reid said. “The best part is when someone comes up to me and asks me how I did it. It’s something I want to share with people if they’re interested.
“I’d bet 10 to 15 percent of the league has a problem with alcohol. But that’s probably true for all sports, not just hockey. If I can help someone else, that’s great. I want to be there for them because I learned you can’t do it alone.”