‘Sliver of hope’: How former Canuck Corey Hirsch overcame mental health crisis

Reaching out for help may be hard, but it’s the most important thing to do when facing mental health issues, says former Canucks goalie

To former Vancouver Canucks goalie Corey Hirsch, the cut of skate blades on ice, the hammer of stick and puck, the clear, cold air of the rink is home. It is calm.

Hirsch was a rink rat who grew up on the ice, rose steadily through the ranks in Alberta, from development opportunities at the age of 12, through four seasons of major junior hockey with the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers. He was selected by the New York Rangers in the eighth round of the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, went on to nab a silver medal for Canada at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and spent all or part of four seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, among other cities, in a 14-season professional career in North America and Europe.

Hirsch could always keep it together on the ice.

Until he couldn’t anymore.

It takes a lot of guts to hold the net and handle slap shots coming at 100 mph, and it takes a lot of strength to go public with a mental health diagnosis. 

Hirsch has done both. Now retired from hockey, the broadcaster with Sportsnet is an advocate for mental health who shares his own story to help others who might be struggling, hiding or driving full throttle toward the edge of a cliff, as he once did in an attempt to end the pain that knocked him harder than any puck ever did.

Hirsch remembers vividly the night everything changed. He was 21, he’d been drafted by the Rangers — he had everything he’d ever worked for. Out with friends one night, random, dark thoughts began ripping through his brain. “I was standing there talking to them and I started getting these deep, dark, repetitive thoughts. Harm thoughts, intrusive sexual thoughts.”

He got himself home, but the next morning the thoughts were still there. Hirsch didn’t know what was going on, but he did know this: He couldn’t tell anyone.

It would take years before Corey Hirsch got the proper diagnosis of Pure O, a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that is characterized by obsessive, unwanted thoughts but without ritualistic behaviours like hand washing. JASON PAYNE / PNG

“I started avoiding everybody. If practice was at 10 o’clock, I’d show up at 9:50,” says Hirsch.

The avoidance behaviour was about survival, but it only isolated Hirsch further. Games were his salvation—the adrenaline and the focus would put his anxiety and looping thoughts on ice. But it wasn’t enough.

“Summer of ’94 I tried to break my own hand so I could leave New York and go back to Calgary, but I couldn’t do it. I was stuck in New York. I called my mom to come out to help me get up, get out, get to practice, but I didn’t know what was happening.”

When Hirsch took his mom to the Empire State Building, he told her that he wanted to jump off it.

His mother started to cry, but she didn’t know what to do.

Hirsch begged her not to say anything to the team. He was afraid to reach out to the team doctor.

“The Rangers win the Stanley Cup. I book a flight the next morning at 8 a.m. I didn’t stick around for the parade, I blew out of there.”

Then-Canucks goalie Corey Hirsch has a contemplative look while taking a break at training camp in Whistler in September 1997. ARLEN REDEKOP / PNG FILES

Back home in Calgary, Hirsch opened the phone book and picked a therapist at random. He confided his darkest thoughts to her.

“The best way I can describe it is you are driving your car down the road and you have the thought: ‘What if I swerve my car into the oncoming lane?’ Most people go, oh, that’s a stupid thought, and they go on with their day. Someone like me will analyze that thought, ruminate on it: Why would I have that thought, am I a horrible person? Does that mean I want to act on that thought?

“This lady had no idea what was going on, no idea how to diagnose me. She started trying to convince me that maybe these thoughts are real.”

Later that summer, in despair, Hirsch found himself putting the thoughts into action and driving his turbo sports car full speed toward the edge of a cliff.

What made him slam on the brakes, he says now, was “a tiny sliver of hope.”

Hirsch was a fighter. He clung tenaciously to that sliver, but it would be years before he got a proper diagnosis and understood that the torment he suffered from had a name: a form of obsessive compulsive disorder known as Pure O, which is characterized by obsessive, unwanted thoughts but without ritualistic behaviours like hand washing.

“The way OCD works is the fight between the rational brain and the irrational brain, and it’s constant, over and over and over again,” says Hirsch.

Defenceman Adrian Aucoin keeps an eye on teammate Corey Hirsch (left) on the bench during a 1995 Canucks game. RICK LOUGHRAN / PNG FILES

Hirsch coped by avoiding people, places and activities where his looping, dark thoughts invaded. Internally, he was crippled by shame and anxiety. Externally, on the ice, his career continued to grow. He landed with the Canucks in 1995 and was buoyed, briefly, by the prospect of a fresh start.

But during his second season with the Canucks he couldn’t hold it together anymore. The dark thoughts started overtaking him again. “I was a mess. I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t eat, I was losing weight.”

He pulled a trainer aside during a morning skate and blurted out that he needed help. Hirsch gives huge credit to the Canucks organization for getting him the help he needed — as soon as he asked for it. Within days he had a diagnosis of OCD, and a sense of relief.

“People with OCD are 10 times more likely to kill themselves. It’s intrusive and it can be deadly, but it’s also highly treatable,” says Hirsch, who first went public with his diagnosis in 2017.

Now he wants to tear down the stigma around mental health issues. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will personally experience some form of mental health problem.

“There are a whole lot of reasons, for men, that stop them from reaching for help. Masculinity, the school system, the medical referral system, the stigma of medication,” says Hirsch.

For now, Hirsch is medication-free, but it has helped him in the past. “Everyone is so afraid of taking meds for mental health and, yes, we still have a lot of work to do pharmaceutically, but I wouldn’t be here without it.”

Goalie Corey Hirsch looks like he just wants to get the dressing room after the traditional post-series handshake with members of the Colorado Avalanche, who had just ousted the Vancouver Canucks from the 1995-96 Stanley Cup playoffs. WARD PERRIN / PNG FILES

Hirsch, who has three teenagers, wants mental health to be openly discussed in the education system from elementary school. “To me it’s getting the information into the hands of our kids. I wonder now, why was that withheld from me?”

His desire to help others find their way out of the darkness became more personal and more urgent after the death of his partner, Julie, who took her own life in February 2018 at the age of 43. Julie left behind two children and a large network of loving friends and family.

“It crushed me,” says Hirsch.

“The thing about Julie I want everyone to know is that if she went out to an event everyone loved her, she was always smiling, laughing, happy and life-loving, but underneath something was going on that no one could see.”

After her death, Hirsch found out Julie had reached out to a suicide hotline. It’s another missing link he hopes to see addressed. “Suicide hotlines are needed, and confidentiality is very important, but if someone would have told me or a family member we could have rallied, but nobody knew.”

Once again Hirsch credits the Canucks, and Sportsnet, for giving him the help he needed after Julie died. “Starting with the Sedins, pretty much every player came up to me and offered me condolences, and Erik Gudbranson said if I ever needed anything they would do whatever it took.”

That is the kind of team support everyone needs, says Hirsch, and the kind he’d like to see available to anyone struggling with grief, depression or mental illness.

The term “mental illness” complicates matters because of the associated stigma, he says. “We’ve separated the mind and the body, but your brain is a physical piece of the body, like the heart or the liver. We expect everyone’s brains to function perfectly, when it’s the most complicated thing we have in our body.”

While mental illness affects all genders, men are in fact more likely to die by suicide, says Hirsch. In Canada, 75 per cent of deaths by suicide are men, and globally a man dies by suicide every minute, according to Movember.com.

Hirsch wants everyone to hear this: “There is nothing wrong with you morally or spiritually if something is misfiring in your brain. You just need to tell someone.”


Content Originally found on : https://vancouversun.com

What not to say to someone struggling with mental health

Helping someone with Mental Health Issues

We have all been there , we want to help but don’t know what to say….. here is some suggestions of things not to say to someone suffering from struggles of mental illness.


contributed by: Myles Mattila- Mental health advocate

What’s Up With Canada’s Game: Exploring Mental Illness in Hockey


There has been a veritable avalanche of hockey memoirs published in the last few years that foreground the critically important topic of men’s mental illness. To be clear, these books are chiefly accounts of the lives of these men in professional hockey, but underlying issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), alcohol and substance abuse, depression, and anxiety appear as prominently in the player’s career trajectories as Fall training camp or the National Hockey League (NHL) draft. A quick scan of these titles may give you the skewed impression that hockey is bad for your mental health, or even prompt the question: What’s up with Canada’s game?

Of course this is an exaggeration. Any sports fan who reads will tell you that the vast majority of hockey books published are as formulaic as the ones I read as a kid. In fact, some of the first “adult” books I ever read as a boy were about or by hockey stars – straightforward stories of triumph. Most are, by and large, exciting, innocent adventures of determined and talented players advancing from back-country frozen ponds, surmounting uncomplicated obstacles, and ultimately finding fame in the NHL.

This literary landscape changed dramatically, however, with the publication of two eye-opening and ground-breaking autobiographies. Sheldon Kennedy’s Why I Didn’t Say Anything (2006) bravely addressed child sexual abuse when he disclosed the sexual crimes of his predatory coach, Graham James. In 2009, Theoren Fleury recounted experiences with this same monstrous coach in his book, Playing with Fire. The impact of Kennedy’s and Fleury’s books on the NHL – and on hockey at all levels – was absolutely seismic. These stories also had a profound effect on Canadian society in general, as Kennedy’s descriptions of the abuse – and how he dealt with the trauma by abusing alcohol and drugs during his NHL days in the 1990s – was powerful and, ultimately, a game-changer in child care and other areas. His story opened the door for the implementation of many positive measures in hockey, including a new tolerance for writing about and discussing previously stigmatized subjects. In the years since, a sliver of the already small niche of hockey biographies has been cutting-edge in the call to attention they have solicited for mental health issues.

A sliver of the already small niche of hockey biographies has been cutting-edge in the call to attention they have solicited for mental health issues.

More recent books by Jordin Tootoo, All the Way (2014), Clint Malarchuk, The Crazy Game (2014), Patrick O’Sullivan, Breaking Away (2015) and a biography of the late enforcer Derek Boogaard, Boy on Ice (2014) have similarly shone light on the darker side of playing hockey. While hockey itself certainly does not cause mental illness, like any segment of society there are vulnerable NHL players who are susceptible to it. Men do not typically talk about things like weakness or vulnerability, and they don’t usually discuss these topics with their friends, but we need to. Hockey is an immensely popular and influential game, so the potential for conversation surrounding men’s mental health reaching a wider audience is massive. These players writing about their experiences is doing just that, and it is a huge deal!

Men do not typically talk about things like weakness or vulnerability, and they don’t usually discuss these topics with their friends, but we need to.

A closer examination of many of these books reveals that they are not your average superstar memoirs, nor are they written by the biggest names in the sport. With the exception of Malarchuk, who had success as a goalie in the 1980s, or Fleury who was a top-scorer with the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers, none of them was a famous player. Although it is a major feat to make it to the NHL – and I am not implying anything to the contrary – these are the stories of hockey’s “everyman.” I challenge that this makes these stories even more important because they suggest that any player can be at risk in a hyper-masculine environment (which, in Canada, might better be labelled the hyper-masculine environment). We may find it hard to relate to the megastar story of a Gretzky or a Crosby, but we can more easily identify with the plight of these more regular NHL players. This is hockey stripped of any glamour or hype, not the realized boyhood dreams of a life in the pros. It is hockey, but presents the game as lived by flesh and blood suffering men.

It is hockey, but presents the game as lived by flesh and blood suffering men.

Image by R.G. McFadden

The battle scars of “goon” Derek Boogaard, who suppressed his pain in silence by self-medicating to the extreme, symbolized the exaggerated, muted, dysfunctional behaviours that some of us men demonstrate. He has dreams of being recognized for his hockey talents – the ultimate dream of all enforcers – but he is resigned to fighting, which is his real job on the ice. The results of his resignation were terrible, most notably in the experience of his community.

Boogaard was the last of a dying breed, as the role of the enforcer has been increasingly phased out from the mid-2000s onward. But there was still enough demand for his fists in the late 2000s to find continuous employment. An autopsy performed on his breain after his death – a result of huge amounts of painkillers and alcohol – revealed major brain decay, a potential indicator of earl on set dementia had he lived longer than his short 28 years. He was one of three enforces who lost their lives in the summer of 2011. The other two, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak, died by suicide due to their untreated depression, substance abuse, and inexorable physical pain. Read more

When a man is dislocated from familiar surroundings and has lost his social supports, he can be vulnerable. Jordin Tootoo was raised in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, a community rife with alcoholism and family dysfunction, as well as the generations-old historical trauma – the consequences of colonialism – of an Indigenous living in Canada. Hockey was a rare outlet for escape and Tootoo excelled at it, becoming a local sensation before heading south to play junior hockey in Brandon, Manitoba.  Despite being somewhat of an adolescent celebrity with the Brandon Wheat Kings, he was adrift in a strange environment and disconnected from his community. He experienced racism for the first time and had feelings of isolation that he suppressed with alcohol, partying, and local girls. Nunavut might have had its major problems, but it was still his home.

Image by Paul Nicholson

Tootoo triumphed on the ice and made it to the pros, becoming the first ever Inuk to do so. His inner fragility worsened, however, until he hit rock bottom a few years into his career. Fortunately, in 2008, he realized that he needed help, and accepted the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) directive of rehabilitative treatment. He was able to re-connect with his Inuit heritage, and his culture became a source of strength. He is still active in the NHL today, playing sober and living well as a New Jersey Devil.

It has become widely accepted in mental health circles that childhood trauma often manifests itself through negative consequences in adulthood. Patrick O’Sullivan’s childhood was a nightmare as he experienced the physical abuse and mental torment from “a hockey dad from hell,” John O’Sullivan, whose relentless drive to get his son into the NHL was absolutely outstanding.

This is the familiar story of an over-involved parent – himself a failed minor league player – but taken to horrific extremes. At age 8 or 9 he would wake Patrick to do punishing exercise routines more suitable for a player twice his age, or would make him run behind the car for miles and miles when they drove home from games. John’s overbearing behaviour toward his son’s coaches meant the entire family had to move almost every year to various towns in Canada and the United States to play with different teams. John went to absurd lengths to get his son into the professional ranks, and there was seemingly no scheme that was too far fetched. John forged his birth certificate at the age of 13 to get him on the U.S. under-15 squad, and at 14 had him playing with 20-year old grown men in an Ontario Senior League. This manic dad was able to manipulate and con those in charge and have Patrick “playing up” with older, more developed players. To him, Patrick was “hockey playing chattel who would eventually pay off.”

It was clearly evident that young Patrick had natural hockey talent, but a decade of his dad’s brutality all but snuffed out any true passion he had left for the sport. By the time he reached the NHL entry level draft in 2003 and his story was common knowledge on the sports channels, potential hockey suitors had already pegged him as having “baggage.” Although he was by then free from the control of his demanding dad, he was labelled a “problem kid” that no team in the NHL, with its historical aversion toward mental health issues, was willing to tackle.

O’Sullivan had a number of lacklustre seasons but, in truth, his career never had a chance. He unknowingly, suffered from PTSD, which played no small role in ultimately sidelining him. Only now, in retirement, is he seeking and getting the help and support he needs to deal with his childhood trauma.

Clint Malarchuk’s tale is the perfect example of a young man suffering from mental illness that progressed to the point of career-ending debilitation. He suffered from both Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). A goalie in the 1980s and 1990s with Quebec, Washington and, later, the Buffalo Sabres, he achieved widespread notoriety for having his jugular vein cut open by an opponent’s skate during a televised NHL game in 1989. Millions continent-wide watched in horror as Malarchuk was rushed off the ice, trainers and attendants furiously trying to stop the surging blood. He barely survived.

The “play through pain” work ethic took hold, however, and he was back in the net within a couple of weeks. His close brush with death, however, would dog him for years to come, and his depression and OCD worsened in the ensuing years. It became so bad in the early 1990s, and his drinking to combat it so excessive, that he lost his job in the pros. He was relegated to the minors before eventually retiring; he went into coaching.

His drinking as a form of self-medication while he was still playing caused the NHLPA to pressure him into rehabilitation. This assistance was not sustained for long. It was the first of many stints in rehab, followed by repeated periods of sobriety and infrequent binges. Despite all these circumstances, he maintained his belief in his own self-reliance and ability to work it out for himself. Clearly, his attempts at self-treatment were not working.

In 2007 his mental pain became so intense that he threatened to kill himself.

In 2007 his mental pain became so intense that he threatened to kill himself. He ended up in a psychiatric ward. A year later he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the mouth, but somehow miraculously survived.

His suicide attempt precipitated the more stable recovery that he enjoys today. The memoir ends with no resolution or conclusion, just the realistic assertion that his life continues to be a “work in progress”. He confesses that it has been a decades – long pursuit with many setbacks and failures, but, finally, he feels that he has a handle on his demons.

I must reiterate that these are important books, and I highly recommend reading any or all of them. There are others, too, including a new one by Reggie Leach titled The Riverton Rifle. He was the celebrated Indigenous sniper on the 1970s Philadelphia “Ferocious” Flyers, whose career was all but eclipsed by alcoholism. Like the books mentioned above, it is one that I think transcends the genre of the mere hockey memoir. All are meaningful testimonies of pain that offer us an uncensored window into both the hockey world and the struggles of men who battle mental illness. They invite all men, the average Joes who love hockey and hold sacred the Canadian Saturday night winter ritual, to shatter the stigma associated with mental illness and break to pieces the silence that surrounds it. For some men these stories are the source by which they learn more about mental afflictions, while others who might suffer from similar disorders are afforded an opportunity to relate to men with whom they share similar struggles. These books are reaching the audience who may benefit the most from them – namely other males – and for that we are grateful for the hope, inspiration, and conversation surrounding the topic of men’s mental health. And to that, I can only say: Game on!

…some of the first “adult” books I ever read as a boy were about or by hockey stars – straightforward stories of triumph… innocent adventures of determined and talented players advancing from back-country frozen ponds, surmounting uncomplicated obstacles… This literary landscape changed dramatically…



article originally published on https://www.suicideinfo.ca/resource/mental-illness-hockey/


Blood drizzled out of the side of Joe Pavelski’s head like a leaky faucet. The San Jose Sharks captain had been hit by an unfortunate combination of poorly placed force and an inopportune reaction to gravity. As he crashed to the ice and lay motionless, a newly iconic hockey injury photo was born. Pavelski suffered a concussion, required eight staples to the head, and missed only six games before returning to help push the Sharks past the Colorado Avalanche.

A few short weeks later, Boston Bruins mainstay Zdeno Chara had his jaw pureed by an errant Brayden Schenn shot. USA Today headlines celebrated his heroics, boasting that Chara was playing with new installed plates, wires and screws, and was outfitted in headgear that made him look like a mix of Bane and Lisa Simpson in braces. The Bruins captain would return without missing a single game. After all, this was for the Cup.

Meanwhile, Kevin Durant, the internet’s favourite punching bag, was getting lambasted by the media and within hockey circles for not playing through the pain after suffering a calf injury. The Chara comparisons were fast and unrelenting, and the implication was clear. Chara was tough, a gladiator, conceived and birthed in fire. He reminded fans of the days when men were men, trench warfare was a quaint right-of-passage, and we didn’t complain about what ailed us. Durant was not. He was the result of a coddling, entitled Millennial culture, at first refusing to play through the pain. This is the trump card hockey fans will seemingly play into perpetuity: the NHL is better than the NBA because only hockey players are resilient enough to play through punctured lungs, a rack of cracked ribs, and broken extremities.

Durant would eventually return, tear his ACL, throw his future and that of the league into doubt, and open up conversations about how medical staff interacts with teams and players. But that’s not important to the toughness narrative.

Teeth being pulled on benches. Two-minute viral clips of finishing shifts with broken legs. Guys returning to the bench with stitched-up gashes. Pain tolerance and visible displays of toughness are inextricable parts of hockey culture. Memes resurface daily of players in hockey, and only hockey, surviving through injuries that would fell a mortal athlete. Which brings us to the point of all of this.

If pain tolerance is such a celebrated and integral part of hockey’s identity (at the very least, for a vocal minority), and visible injuries are the mecca of that, how can the sport’s culture address a mostly invisible injury like depression and other mental health maladies?

The answer is, it won’t be easy.

Even as the NHL has made baby steps with programs like Hockey Is For Everyone, the culture around the game is still more than a few strides behind more progressive leagues like the NBA. Speaking openly about personal mental health is usually reserved for players who are well out of the league, like Dan Carcillo, Corey Hirsh, Brent Sopel, and Clint Malarchuk.

Current players speak about the importance of mental health, but they do so at arm’s length and usually preface it with mentions of personal stability. The very rare exception is recently-minted Masterton Trophy Winner Robin Lehner, who detailed his battle with bipolar disorder and substance abuse in a moving piece in The Athletic. But even in Lehner’s case, it came well after he had played his last game with Buffalo and was on the road to recovery. Games weren’t necessarily on the line.

At some point, that’ll be different.

In the heat of a Cup run, or the final stretch of a playoff push, a visible and integral player will be suffering from an invisible ailment. Maybe they’ll make it public, maybe they won’t. But it will cause them to miss time, to step away and recover. It’s happened in the NFL already, with Vikings All-Pro linebacker Everson Griffen taking time off to deal with his mental health. It happened when Kevin Love was hit with a panic attack midgame during an especially tumultuous time for the Cavs. It’ll happen in hockey, too.

When it does, it’ll be up to the fans, the NHL, and the players around the game to reverse what’s become a key part of hockey internet culture: injury glorification. For the player to recover, to feel safe taking the time they need, they’ll need to truly believe that being a hockey player isn’t about suffering in silence and sucking it up. They’ll need to believe that toughness is the recognition of pain and the declaration that they’re unable to play, and that doing so isn’t letting the team and the fans down.


Article originally published on https://grandstandcentral.com/2019/sections/mental-health/can-hockey-culture-ever-accept-mental-health-injuries/