Former Canucks goalie Corey Hirsch opens up about his battle with mental illness

Feb 16 2017, 7:40 am

Corey Hirsch reached heights that many kids dream of, but never get to. He played 108 games in the NHL, 101 of them with the Vancouver Canucks.

He won a silver medal at the Olympics in 1994, the last Olympics to before NHL participation in 1998. He was with a Stanley Cup winning team as a third-string goaltender when he was first entering the league in 1994.

But through it all, he was carrying a secret. A deep, dark secret.

On Wednesday, through the Players’ Tribune, he revealed that he suffers from mental illness. I highly recommend that you read it.

His article goes into great detail about his battle. The more than 4,500-word article talks in great length about how he nearly ended his life. He had thoughts tormenting him every day.

He should have been on top of the world but instead he was in a dark place. And he didn’t know why.

He planned to drive his car off a cliff in Kamloops during his playing days. Going 140 miles per hour, he changed his mind and slammed on the brakes.

At first, it didn’t affect his on-ice performance.

Hirsch was a star AHL goalie coming up through the minor leagues. After being drafted in the eighth round by the New York Rangers, he went back to Kamloops and starred for the Blazers, posting a .920 save percentage which was insanely good in that era. After leading his team to a Memorial Cup championship in 1992, he went on to play for the New York Rangers’ affiliate in Binghamton.

With Binghamton in 1992-93, he posted a 34-4-5 record and was named the AHL’s best goaltender as well as the league’s rookie of the year.

In 1995, he was traded to the Canucks for Nathan LaFayette.

Still suffering from mental illness, hockey remained the only place where he could block out bad thoughts.

Hirsch challenged Kirk McLean for the starting job that year, outperforming the Canucks legend statistically. After McLean faltered in the playoffs, Hirsch was given the nod to start for the majority of their series against Colorado, the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

But after that season, Hirsch’s demons began to extend into his mind while on the ice.

A turning point for him came in November of 1996.

“I’m ready to kill myself, I’m done,” Hirsch explained in a video posted on the Vancouver Canucks’ official Twitter account. Hirsch had just let in five goals in an overtime loss to the New York Islanders.

My dark thoughts became more and more crippling. I couldn’t even get out of bed to eat, and I lost a ton of weight. At one point, I was down to about 140 pounds. Two months into the ’96–97 season, we were on an East Coast road trip when I felt like I just couldn’t take it anymore. I told myself that if I didn’t get help, I was going to find a way to end my life — for sure this time.

“He was having such a tough time, that he was in the fetal position in the corner of the dressing room,” Dave Babych recalls.

He told the team’s trainer about his condition. Lucky for him, and everyone that loves him, that he did.

The trainer was shocked, but got him help that changed his life.

Hirsch eventually saw the team’s psychologist, who diagnosed him with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He got treatment, and got his life back.

He said it wasn’t easy, but clearly it led to the road to recovery.

Hirsch says he learned that his famous “Psycho” mask, which is now displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame, was more than a metaphor.

He credits former Canucks teammates Babych, Alex Mogilny, Trevor Linden, and Russ Courtnall with going out of their way to make sure he had someone to talk to.

Even McLean (who was in danger of losing his starting job at the time), Hirsch says, showed him kindness.

I remember after one particularly rough game, he (McLean) walked right up to me on the team plane and put his arm around me and said, “It’s alright, buddy.”

While the Medicine Hat, Alberta native didn’t go on to NHL stardom, he did play professional hockey in the NHL, AHL, IHL, and Europe for nine more seasons after discovering that he had an illness.

Hirsch clearly wanted to bring to light a topic that has gained much more acceptance in our society than in 1996, but still has a long way to go, particularly in the macho world of professional hockey where players are expected to play through pain.

“Either you can continue down the path that you’re going, which is going to lead to destruction, or you can reach out to someone and get better,” Hirsch says.

I encourage everyone to get educated on mental health, beginning by reading Hirsch’s full story on the Players’ Tribune.

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