DUBNetwork was pleased to catch up with former WHL and NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch to discuss his Kamloops roots and recent work advocating for mental health. Hirsch, who currently works as an analyst for Sportsnet650 in Vancouver, initially made his mark on the hockey world with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers from 1988-1992.
Hirsch wrapped up his WHL career by helping the Blazers win their first of three Memorial Cups with a 5-4 victory over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1992. Along with his championship season, the Medicine Hat native was awarded the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the tournament’s top goaltender and named to the Memorial Cup all-star team. Hirsch was also WHL and CHL goaltender of the year in 1991-92 before graduating from the WHL and moving on to the professional ranks.
It’s been a long time since Kamloops has seen a group of goalies like Hirsch, Daryl Reaugh, and Randy Petruk man the Blazers crease. Of course, Devan Dubnyk carried the Blazers through a difficult stretch in the mid-00s but only recently have the likes of Connor Ingram, Dylan Ferguson, and now Dylan Garand given the Blazers a foundation to build on from one season to the next.
“As goalie coaching evolves, so does your goaltending, which is why we have what we have today. It used to be just the best [and] the strongest survived, but now you can develop goalies and teach them and make them better. I’m a big fan of [Blazers goaltending coach] Dan De Palma. He’s a friend of mine, and I think he’s done a fantastic job at developing goalies. There are almost 70 or 80 junior teams. Well, if you’ve got the top goalies continually going [to World Juniors] year after year, you’re doing a pretty good job.”
Hirsch admits that he doesn’t watch much of his alma mater these days due to his work with Sportsnet, where he provides analysis and colour commentary for Vancouver Canucks radio.
Of course, the most notable layover during his playing days was with the Canucks, where he suited up in 101 games. In hindsight, Hirsch believes he owes his professional hockey career to two significant members of Blazers history — Ken Hitchcock and Bob Brown.
“You know what, I’m thankful for everything that they did for me. I’m forever grateful to them for bringing me to Kamloops, and I think a lot of guys would say the same thing — that the program that they gave us, the way they treated us, I owe those two a lot. I owe them my NHL career.”
While names like Scott Niedermayer and Shane Doan are at the forefront of the late-80s and mid-90s Blazers powerhouses, Hirsch’s nod to the architects is a genuine and humble remark toward the two men who initially recruited him from his kitchen table in Medicine Hat with the help of a little white lie.
“I remember sitting at our table and my parents were worried about how much school we would miss because of the wide travel schedule between Brandon, Manitoba, and Victoria, B.C. So Bob [Brown] and Hitch [Ken Hitchcock] were at my kitchen table and looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, I think we’re flying out East.’ I can’t remember who said it but the other one said, ‘Yeah I think we are!’ And then sure enough, as soon as that trip came up it was, ‘Get on the bus, Hirschey.’”
It’s quite clear that the former goaltender holds no ill will toward Brown and the third-winningest coach in NHL history for their clever diversion. Rather, Hirsch is candid in his praise for Hitchcock.
“Other coaches just ran practices and opened the door. We had systems, x’s and o’s. He was a very smart man and he watched a tonne of video. For junior hockey, he was way ahead of his time.”
One could argue that the Blazers had another leg up on their competition in the 71-year old relic on Victoria Street where Hirsch’s son Hayden now plays for the Kamloops Storm.
“[The] Memorial Arena helped, too. The visitor locking room is like a closet so they’d have to come in and change in that locker room. We’d be up 2-0 before they even got off the bus.”
Reflecting on his time with the Blazers, Hirsch has much to laugh and smile about, even those long bus rides.
“I should have been a doctor by now. Instead, I played cards and didn’t do my homework,” Hirsch joked.
Not only has he since caught up on the homework, but he is now sharing his knowledge and experience through a number of platforms.
In his emotionally-charged piece Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Hirsch chronicles the day his undiagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) led him to the brink of suicide.
“I think that when my Players Tribune article came out, it kind of blew the doors off of what people thought OCD was and it opened up a lot of eyes.”
Unfortunately, like many other mental disorders, OCD is often misunderstood, and Hirsch is intent on doing his part to educate the public.
“I think OCD is such a wide scale of things. A lot of people saw it as the physical outward characteristics, but in fact, more people have what I have, which is doing things inside your own brain. There are so many myths and misconceptions about mental health and that’s what we’re trying to break down right now. The stigma of medication out there is ridiculous. Medication saved my life.”
While it may feel like an uphill battle to change the perception of OCD and other mental illnesses, Hirsch has hope for the future.
“I think the next generation is going to be a lot better than my generation. There was a big theory that ‘don’t go see a therapist because they’ll change the way you think, they’ll change the way you play goal or you’ll become a completely different person.’ No, it doesn’t happen that way. You’re not doing a lobotomy — you’re just talking.”
Talking is acknowledging, talking is empowering, and talking is something that Hirsch wants more people to do.
The problem is, reaching out can be a challenge. According to the Canadian Community Healthcare Survey (2012), only 10.5 percent of those who had experienced a mental health disorder or a substance dependency problem said that they accessed a professional consultation or mental health service in the 12 months prior to the study. Considering that one in five Canadians will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, that leaves a shockingly large number of people untreated.
“You can’t see it. Unless someone tells you, I can’t see it until somebody gets very debilitated…That’s why I need people to tell me, because I can’t read minds and I might not be able to see that you’re struggling and I can help you if you tell me, but if you don’t tell me, I can’t help you and that’s why we need people to open up.”
Whether it is a lack of access, the stigma attached to mental health, or denial, there are many factors that prevent people from receiving proper treatment.
According to Hirsch, therapy is an integral step in the healing process. “I think you should have a therapist like you have a doctor. I might not see my doctor for a year, but when I see him or her, they’re there when I need them. I might not need my therapist for two years, but I know that when I call them up, I can get an appointment and get going on my way.”
As significant as that first step is, continuity is just as important.
“I tell people it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Just because you go to your therapist doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to be cured. It’s like going to your doctor and you’ve sprained your ankle. Yes, they’re going to help you, but you’re going to have to rehab. You have to do the work. It’s going to be a while before your ankle gets fixed, and it’s the same thing with your brain. You learn how to fix it and you learn how to go in a better direction. And like an ankle sprain, so that it doesn’t bother you in the future, you do maintenance on it.
“It’s the same thing with mental health. You’re continually doing maintenance on your brain so that you don’t fall into that depression, and you might, but you have the tools to get back.”
Literally and figuratively, Hirsch made it back. The 47-year old recently returned to his old stomping grounds at the Memorial Arena where he joined Kelowna Chiefs captain Myles Matilla for mental health awareness night on November 9th.
Between his play-calling duties for the Canucks and ongoing advocacy for mental health, Hirsch credits the Blazers organization for preparing him to navigate his busy post-hockey career.
“They were very good at teaching us how to deal with adversity and taught us how to become men really — not making excuses for yourself, facing responsibility, just the little things the way that they dealt with us. It was actually developing us as human beings. We were kids. We were between the ages of 16 and 20, and that’s where you learn how to be a man.”
Whether it was the development on the ice or off, though it was likely both, the Blazers’ footprints have extended far and wide, inside the hockey world and beyond.
“You know what, a lot of the guys from Kamloops have gone on to do really successful things, whether it’s coaching in the NHL like Ryan Huska, become great players like [Darcy] Tucker, [Scott] Niedermayer, [Shane] Doan, [Jarome] Iginla, or even broadcasters. What’s really cool about the organization is that a lot of us that played in the program have also gone on to be successful people — not in terms of just money and jobs [but] in terms of what we do in the community.”
Through his advocacy for mental health and wellness, Hirsch is living proof of the ever-strengthening bond between hockey and the community.
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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433). Call 310-6789 (no area code needed) for emotional support, information, and resources specific to mental health. If you are in an emergency, call 9-1-1.