Juan Muniz’s artwork has been seen by almost every fan of the Golden Knights, even if they’re not familiar with his name.
The one-panel cartoons featuring the Lil Knight character created by the Las Vegas resident gained a large following on social media during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.
He also was commissioned to design the logos used on the official Golden Misfits merchandise that was sold by the Knights.
But Muniz, who deals with depression and anxiety, is best known for the growling panda character that was the centerpiece on Knights goalie Robin Lehner’s mask during the postseason.
“Both of my worlds kind of collided into themselves,” Muniz said.
Lehner is more than two years into his journey as the NHL’s most visible and outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, and his impact has transcended hockey.
Muniz, 37, is one example along with countless others who made a personal connection to Lehner’s story along the way.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride, and Lehner’s openness has come with “major repercussions” professionally, according to his agent.
But Lehner’s willingness to show his vulnerability continues to serve as inspiration for many in their own struggles with mental illness.
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to represent that it’s possible whatever you’re dealing with mentally to still perform,” Lehner said. “I’m going to be even more open and honest in the future and keep talking about my story so people can see the light at the end of the tunnel and keep lifting people up.”
The origin of Lehner’s own mental health issues are difficult to recap without painting an incomplete picture.
It starts with the complex relationship between Lehner and his father, Michael, who put his son through a difficult training regimen after he switched from soccer to hockey at age 10.
Lehner left Sweden at age 18 after being drafted by Ottawa in the second round in 2009 and bounced between the Senators and their American Hockey League affiliate for five seasons.
He points to the concussion he sustained with the Senators on Feb. 16, 2015, as the beginning of his struggles with alcohol.
Buffalo acquired Lehner at the 2015 NHL draft for a first-round pick, and he held himself together well enough to post save percentages of .924 and .920 in his first two seasons with the struggling Sabres.
But Lehner finally lost his grip near the end of his third season in Buffalo, and the nadir came when he suffered a panic attack between periods of a game against Detroit on March 29, 2018.
“I think looking back, it definitely was (too much, too soon),” Lehner said. “There’s a lot of things I can pinpoint that I could have gotten help earlier because there was signs there all along.”
Since then, Lehner has been as candid as possible on the subject of mental health.
He detailed his full diagnosis — “bipolar and ADHD with PTSD and trauma” — and recovery in a personal essay on The Athletic in 2018.
That transparency helped Lehner forge an unbreakable bond with New York Islanders fans after he signed a one-year contract with the team for the 2018-19 season.
“I think what we wanted to do as a family is be there to support him, not as a hockey player but also as a person,” said Kim Moisa, a third-generation Islanders fan from Commack, New York.
THANK YOU @RobinLehner FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART. I will forever stay strong because you showed me I could. God bless you and you will forever be my favorite goaltender for the rest of my life. pic.twitter.com/SS1XsUocVA
— Kim M (@IslesGirl3) December 28, 2019
Moisa, 21, was diagnosed with partial complex seizures in December 2018. Lehner’s arrival and subsequent success on Long Island provided strength for the nursing student as she overcame her own depression.
At her darkest points, she turned to his essay on The Athletic for courage.
“It’s that person in your life where you look at them and you’re like, ‘It’s corny, but if they can do it, I can do it,’ ” Moisa said. “Robin helped me to face my own demons. And it just was like a domino effect within our fan base.”
Lehner won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy after his season with the Islanders as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.
His heartfelt acceptance speech at the 2019 NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas was a watershed moment for Lehner’s image across the league and paved the way for others to open up.
Vancouver Canucks forward Tyler Motte shared his story this year of living with depression, and former Colorado Avalanche forward Colin Wilson wrote about his struggles with OCD in The Players’ Tribune last month.
“The way that he handled it really resonated with a lot of people,” said Craig Oster, Lehner’s agent. “To begin to be able to help others, he’s been able to help himself. That has been an incredible journey that he’s taken and he continues to go on.”
When Lehner signed a one-year contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019 after he couldn’t come to terms with the Islanders, he increased his efforts to spread awareness of mental health issues.
Lehner tells a story with each of his goalie masks and sent a powerful message with #SameHere painted on the sides of his Blackhawks gear.
#SameHere is an expression which means: I’ve faced challenges in life too. Those challenges have affected my mental health. It’s a sign that we hope will unite the world to once and for all, normalize how universal this topic is. pic.twitter.com/gWsuDIwkMR
— Robin Lehner (@RobinLehner) August 13, 2019
The hashtag, founded by longtime sports executive Eric Kussin in an effort to normalize the topic of mental health, also appeared on Lehner’s Knights goalie mask with Muniz’s panda design and his pads.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health and data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five adults were living with a mental illness in 2019. Less than half (44.6 percent) of them received mental health services.
“The most awesome stories that have come from this is the amount of people that we’ve been able to connect with because Robin’s put that on his helmet,” Kussin said. “People who reach out with messages like, ‘I saw the hashtag and figured I’d throw a Hail Mary out there and maybe somebody will listen to my prayers.’ ”
Looking to the future
In many respects, Lehner’s game-saving glove stop against Vancouver’s Brock Boeser in the Western Conference semifinals was symbolic of his “mentally ill, not mentally weak” message.
Lehner thrived under the pressure of a Game 7 and, as a bonus, disproved any notion that he lacks lateral quickness at 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds.
It also helped soothe a fan base still reeling from Marc-Andre Fleury’s demotion to backup goalie.
“The people that did start diving into Lehner’s background and where he comes from or what he stands for, I could see that fan base just growing an emotional connection to him,” Muniz said. “And I think the more and more that he’s open about it and speaks about it and he’s in this city even more, we’re going to just fall in love with him in such a massive way.”
Lehner, 29, is the Knights’ goalie of the future after he signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension in October.
With a new city ready to embrace him for the long term, those close to Lehner are optimistic his impact will continue to grow.
“You started to see his personality come out a little bit last year. You started to see the Panda,” Kussin said. “Now that he doesn’t have those things on his plate anymore that weighed him down as much, you’re going to start to see much more of his other side of his personality come out.”