Daniel Carcillo, ex-Blackhawks enforcer-turned-CEO, hopes to heal fellow TBI survivors with psilocybin mushrooms
The former Blackhawks enforcer used psilocybin to recover from concussions suffered during his NHL career. Now he’s the CEO of a company that just raised $4 million and begins preclinical trials this year.
Six years ago, Daniel Carcillo retired from the NHL and the Blackhawks.
Two years ago, having made essentially no progress recovering from the many traumatic brain injuries (or TBI) he suffered during his playing career, Carcillo hit rock bottom.
Now, Carcillo feels largely healed, healthy and happy. He’s the CEO of a new company he co-founded, Wesana Health, that just closed on $4 million in financing.
And in 10 to 12 weeks, Wesana will begin preclinical trials on psychedelic drug-assisted therapy — primarily using a compound found in psilocybin mushrooms — as a means of treating TBI-related depression.
But Carcillo still wants to accomplish more. This isn’t the peak.
“Too often, TBI survivors are wanting to get back to the person that they were before the injury,” Carcillo, who turned 36 on Thursday, said this week. “I’m hoping to show people that you can get better because I’ve never felt better in my life.
“When I started this years ago, I had this thought that I want to try to help a million people, and I’ll do anything I can to try to get there. I think this has a real shot.”
Wesana — which combines the English word “we” and the Latin word “sana,” meaning “healthy” — has applied for regulatory approval with the FDA and Health Canada. The goal is to eventually make these treatments widely available to all TBI victims.
Once preclinical trials on animals can prove psilocybin’s safety, which Carcillo is extremely confident will happen based on pre-existing data and his personal experiences, Wesana plans to begin human clinical trials in the first quarter of 2022.
Those personal experiences began after a long, frustrating search.
From 2015 to 2019, Carcillo tried every type of recognized TBI treatment, particularly those that seek to identify and treat regions of the brain damaged by concussions through eye exercises. He got nowhere.
“I got to a point where I spent $200,000,” he said. “I was extremely angry and frustrated and hopeless. When hopelessness creeps in, the No. 1 cause of death after TBI is suicide, so I started to make plans.”
Then a former NHL teammate reached out and introduced him to psilocybin, sometimes colloquially called magic mushrooms. Psilocybin can create new neurons and new neural pathways in the brain, stimulating concussion-affected areas and reversing destructive, habitual thought processes.
Carcillo started a regimen that includes occasional big doses of the hallucinogen, which create the new pathways, and regular non-hallucinogenic “micro-doses,” which maintain those pathways.
“I’ve always been tracking with [brain scans] and blood work, and once I got to the six-month mark and confirmed I don’t have any abnormalities anymore and that my blood work was clear, I knew right then and there that this is going to be the first novel TBI care option,” he said.
Now 18 months in, he’s still seeing normal scans and clean blood tests.
But maintaining this level of strong mental health requires significant work and intentionality on his part. He’s quick to clarify that psilocybin is not a “miracle drug”; it doesn’t work entirely on its own.
“It works in the individual for what the individual wants,” he said. “It’s been nothing short of life-changing.”
Having stabilized his own health, Carcillo has turned his focus toward helping others and growing Wesana.
Alongside co-founder Chad Bronstein, who provides the entrepreneurial expertise to balance Carcillo’s not-so-helpful-now sports background — Carcillo says his hockey-enforcer career made him “a person that I despised” — the company has quickly become one of the fastest-growing in the psychedelics realm.
Carcillo’s opinion of his former self somewhat aligns with the contentious nature of his relationship with the NHL since his retirement.
The 429-game veteran and two-time Stanley Cup winner has frequently criticized the league and the Hawks for mishandling and downplaying concussions, such as that of former Hawks defenseman Steve Montador, whose 2015 death weighed heavily on him. Carcillo and another ex-Hawk, Nick Boynton, filed a lawsuit in 2018 alleging the NHL withheld information about TBI from players.
Wesana’s potential to create positive change, though, has inspired Carcillo to try to bridge that gap.
He recently spoke with Glenn Healy, director of the NHL Alumni Association, and has a meeting scheduled next week with the association’s medical staff.
“I know that there’s former guys suffering, [and] I know we can help guys,” Carcillo said. “This is all very new to them, so if you present everything in the right way and let them make a decision, hopefully we have a good shot at helping that community.”
Carcillo also sees psilocybin treatments as possibly helpful for NFL players, NASCAR drivers, UFC and MMA fighters — one of Wesana’s executives is Ian McCall, a former MMA champion — and other pro athletes.
The largest demographics suffering from TBI-related depression are not athletes, though, but rather military veterans, domestic- and child-abuse victims, car-accident survivors and elderly people recovering from falls.
Carcillo wants to start making the potential of psilocybin be about those untreated millions, not himself.
But having completed a remarkable recovery from a near-death period of his life and having repurposed himself from on-ice villain to CEO, he wouldn’t mind if his personal journey became inspirational for others, too.
“One of my biggest dreams is to show people, especially current players, you don’t have to be labeled a hockey player for the rest of your life,” Carcillo said. “I’m Daniel, and I played hockey. I’m not Daniel, the hockey player.”