From childhood trauma to triumph: how Jake Newton saved his hockey career

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It was the biggest night of Jake Newton’s hockey career, and he couldn’t shake the terror. He wasn’t merely fending off the butterflies that accompany any youngster’s first NHL pre-season game. This was true fear, the urge toward flight over fight, the sense something or someone was out to hurt him.

Newton, 22 at the time, had the best opportunity of his life in front of him. He was a 6-foot-3, 200-pound puck-moving defenseman signed out of college to an Anaheim Ducks club that had just lost Scott Niedermayer to retirement. Five minutes into a Sept. 24, 2010 clash with the San Jose Sharks, Newton buried a feed from Ryan Getzlaf for a power-play goal. It was a high unlike any Newton had experienced before.

Five minutes after that came the game’s first fight. Then, 21 seconds later, another. Then, 13 seconds later, another. The Ducks and Sharks threw down six times that night. Every time a brawl broke out, Newton was paralyzed with fright.

“I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Man, I really hope nobody asks me to fight,’ ” he said. “Because I’m trying to make this team, I really need to say yes and fight this guy. But I’m not a fighter. I don’t know how to fight. Even if I were a guy that were to be more aggressive, all that stuff in my past would be so present in my mind going into a fight.”

A fight was never just a fight for Newton. Any time he stared down an angry male opponent, he didn’t see a fellow hockey player. All Newton saw was the abuser from his childhood. All Newton saw was his cousin.

It started when Newton was about five growing up in San Jacinto, Calif. His cousin was 17 and, in the eyes of Newton’s parents, a trusted live-in family member who could watch Newton and his other siblings after school. Instead, that’s when the sexual abuse took place. Because Newton was so young, he didn’t understand that telling his parents could’ve stopped the horrors. All the cousin had to do was threaten repeatedly to hurt Newton, which, for a five-year-old’s mind, was worse than any alternative.

“I remember so vividly one time walking up the steps at my parents’ house, the house my mom still lives at to this day, and I can see through into the living room, and I’m looking at him, thinking to myself, ‘If I go and do this, this guy, 20 minutes after, is going to come and beat me up.’ And I’m so terrified by that thought that I didn’t say anything.”

The abuse continued for two years. It might have lasted longer if not for Newton’s older sister. His repressed memories are hazy, he says, but as he recalls it, his sister came home early one day, saw a locked door that wasn’t supposed to be locked, found a way in and caught the cousin in the act. He wound up getting sent to a juvenile-detention facility. The abuse was over, but the long-term damage was only just beginning to manifest itself.

Newton never received professional help in the immediate years after the abuse. With so much unresolved trauma, he developed emotional problems as he matured into his teen years. He’d experience sudden and rapid mood swings almost daily. He describes himself as extremely emotional back then, quick to cry. Yet he still fought through the feelings and rose up the ranks as a legitimate hockey prospect. By his late teens, he ended up in the highly respected NAHL, playing for the Texas Tornado. A year after that, he was repping the Lincoln Stars at the USHL All-Star Game. By 2009-10, he’d made the NCAA all-rookie team with Northeastern. That’s when the Ducks came calling.

Newton did everything he could to lock away his demons during his ascent, but they couldn’t stay hidden. Whenever things got violent on the ice, he saw his cousin and “instantly clicked into little Jake,” he said. The day after that fight-filled NHL pre-season game in 2010, the Ducks sent Newton down to AHL Syracuse. He never made it back up. He was traded to Colorado the next season, then demoted from the AHL to the CHL, and that’s when the demons really ran him down. The Allen Americans played in Texas, not far from a bordering town of Frisco, where he’d played in the NAHL, and he had too many friends nearby. He began to drink heavily. He got addicted to chewing tobacco. He cheated on his wife. All that suppressed terror from his childhood made him want to kill the pain, and it was destroying his opportunities in hockey and hurting the people closest to him.

After the 2011-12 season, he reached a crucial crossroads. He chose recovery. He began intensive therapy, multiple times a week, including couples therapy with his wife. He unearthed buried memories from his childhood. He began to understand how the past was holding back his hockey future, making him timid, and why he was sabotaging all the relationships in his life with self-destructive behavior.

The choice to seek help saved Newton’s career. Starting in 2012-13, he began to rise up the European ranks. He became a champion and league MVP in the Italian League. He made it to the Finnish Liiga, then the Czech Extraliga.

The off-ice healing was helping him on the ice. Still, not everything was right. He and his wife had two children, and the bouncing around from country to country made life difficult. Eventually, his wife gave him the ultimatum: come home with her and the kids, or stay in Europe by himself. Newton decided he had to maintain his best income source, so he stayed behind. He realized then he still wasn’t at peace mentally yet. He began a path of self-discovery. He took up yoga, and he got hooked on a book about self-reflection and meditation called The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Newton started to explore a different way to deal with problems in his life: to not let them rule him emotionally, to understand that he had to be the source of his own happiness.

It worked. He achieved a level of self love he never thought he could. And now, playing in Norway, divorced from his wife, he feels the best he’s ever felt about himself and the impact he has on his loved ones – including his kids.

“To be honest with you, I’ve never been in a better place in my life,” said Newton, now 31, during the 2019-20 season. “And I say that as I’m 5,000 miles away from my kids with the challenges that brings.”

Newton devoted himself entirely to learning more about mental health, training his mind to react differently to life events beyond his control and becoming the source of his own fulfillment.

“We were never taught to look in the mirror and put all the responsibility on ourselves to love ourselves unconditionally,” Newton said. “We put the responsibility for our happiness on our partners or on our friends or on our parents. They’re going to be able to do it every now and then, but if you don’t have that on your own, if you haven’t cultivated that yourself, you’re going to continue to need these people around you to feel that inner happiness. If you can do it yourself, you don’t need anybody. Now you want them because they amplify you, they maximize you.”

He has since become a mental-health coach. Newton hosts a podcast called RAV: Raw, Authentic and Vulnerable, in which he discusses coping with the trauma of sexual abuse. He posts inspirational Instagram videos daily. He holds 1-on-1 sessions with people who are lost souls like he was – anyone from coaches looking to connect with their players to a retired secret-service agent.

He’s had an effect on his own friends, too, like his close buddy Alex Miner Barron, a pro defenseman who grew up in California idolizing Newton, who was three years Barron’s senior. The two met much later in life, and Miner Barron couldn’t believe how different Newton was from the reputation that had followed him around in the past as someone who struggled with a party lifestyle. This version of Newton was strong, hardworking, disciplined and an open book who was at peace discussing all the problems he’d overcome.

“I’ve honestly never met a guy that has faced more adversity than this guy,” Miner Barron said. “It’s mind-blowing season after season after season. Sometimes I just want to ask him, ‘Jake, are you OK? Are you sure you’re good? Dude, I’ll fly out there, and then we’ll hang out and just talk about it.’ But he’s like, ‘No, Alex, I’m good.’ It’s the internal changes that he’s making. The best way to put it is, he’s becoming a veteran in life.”

Miner Barron describes Newton as an amazing and dedicated dad who becomes a little kid when he’s around his son and daughter. He’s constantly hilarious, Miner Barron adds, a sunny ball of energy, a guy who “never wears a shirt for some reason” and will call in the middle of the night just to catch up.

“He just operates on a whole other level,” Miner Barron said. “I think he wakes up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. I’m on the West Coast, so it’s like 1:00 in the morning. He’ll call me and say, ‘What are you doing, buddy?’ ‘I’m sleeping, man. What about you?’ He goes, ‘You know, just getting the day started. Meditated for about two hours already.’ ”

Newton taught Miner Barron a key lesson he still carries with him: a metaphor describing the catastrophic events in one’s life as cars on a train. It goes: if you try to involve yourself, or hop onto the moving train, you’re going to get hurt. So you’re better off being a stoic bystander, watching the cars fly by, waiting to react when the time is right. Miner Barron used lesson that to get through a tough year in the German DEL’s second tier in which he didn’t feel like he was meshing with his team.

Having learned to love himself and process everything in his life differently, Newton has been able to revisit his nightmarish childhood. He still has pause whenever he has to leave his kids with a babysitter, but he’s working on building up more trust in other people. He speaks about his former tormentor with a degree of forgiveness. There was “some interaction” years back, Newton explains, a negative encounter after his ex-wife reached out to the cousin, but Newton has changed so much since then that he’d be open to a do-over.

“I’ve got images in my mind, I’ve got sights, I’ve got sounds, I’ve got taste, all right here,” he said. “But I can think about all those things. I can have all of them right here in my mind, and there’s no emotional trigger that follows. There’s no pain. There’s no sadness. There’s no anger.

“All I think about when I think about him is, I’d love to meet him today. Give him a hug, shake his hand and have a conversation with him. Not from a place of resentment whatsoever, but from pure curiosity of wanting to know how he’s doing, because it also happened to him. He was sexually abused himself. And so, through that, I know he was in pain as well. Even though he may have known what he was doing to me was wrong, he probably viewed it as normal behavior, because it was something that was done to him, and most likely the person who did it to him had it done to them.”

Newton endured a hell few people can ever imagine. Now he’s reached a level of enlightenment and forgiveness few people could ever achieve. He spent a life feeling like the weakest person every time he stepped on the ice. Now Newton is the strongest person, inside and out, wherever he goes.

This is an edited version of a story that appeared in The Hockey News 2020 Inspiration Issue. Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.