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After opening up about his struggle with anxiety, Corey Hirsch now helping other players cope

Corey Hirsch is sitting on the edge of the bed in his hotel room in Washington, D.C., clutching the blade of a hockey stick in his right hand.

It is the spring of 1994, and the goalie is just a few months removed from backstopping Team Canada to an Olympic silver medal in Lillehammer, Norway. He has been called up from the minors to join the team that drafted him, the New York Rangers, for its playoff run. The 21-year-old should be on top of the world.

But he's not. Here in this hotel room, Hirsch is alone with his thoughts. Dark, anxious thoughts that have been dogging him for months and that he cannot quiet.

The answer is simple, Hirsch thinks. He needs to go home to Canada. Maybe there, the awful thoughts will recede and give him peace.

So he takes the blade -- which he swiped from the dressing room during that day's morning skate -- and he smashes it into his left hand. Once, twice. Ten times.

When the blade is good and broken he'll hide it, then show up for the next day's practice and pretend to take a hard shot off his hand -- and that will be it. He'll leave the Rangers in the middle of their Eastern Conference series against the rival Washington Capitals and go home to Canada to nurse his injured hand and his wounded mind.

But that's not how it works out.

Despite his best efforts, Hirsch merely bruises his hand, and he remains with the team. The Rangers go on a historic run and win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. Still a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Hirsch joins his teammates as they each drink from the Stanley Cup after the Rangers defeat the Vancouver Canucks in a dramatic seventh game of the finals at Madison Square Garden.

The next morning, Hirsch is on the first flight back to Calgary. He wants no part of the parade or the celebration.

"I don't stay for any of it," he says now. "None of it. I just blow out of there."

But the dark thoughts follow him home. He seeks help, but his condition is not properly diagnosed, and he continues to struggle quietly with his burden.

"I can barely get out of bed," he recalls. "The thoughts don't stop. They're 24 hours a day. They're continual, and they're relentless."

Still, he tells no one.

By the end of the summer, the dark thoughts have become unrelenting. One day, Hirsch finds himself driving his Plymouth Laser turbo on a lonely mountain road outside of Kamloops, British Columbia, his thoughts somewhere on an equally desolate byway between dark despair and faint hope. A new hockey season is beckoning, but so is the prospect of trying to disguise his anxiety. He fears he can't tell anyone with the franchise about the panic attacks, or his hockey career will surely be over.

Hirsch sits in his car, trying again to make sense of the unwelcome thoughts that continue to haunt him. He cannot.

So he puts the sports car into gear and slams down on the gas pedal as hard as he can.

He pushes the car up to 140 mph and closes his eyes. "I want to kill myself. I'm done," he thinks. Then, just before he barrels into a sharp turn, Hirsch slams on the brakes and skids the car to a stop.

Maybe it's a flicker of hope somewhere amid the tortured thoughts. Maybe it's the fear of not dying and being left paralyzed. Or maybe it's something else, like fate, that stops him.

Regardless, that moment is neither the beginning nor the end of Hirsch's story, but a point in time that helps illustrate the abject loneliness of someone who is dealing with mental illness. Even someone who seemingly has everything going for him.

It's part of what motivates Hirsch, 44, to tell his story now. He figures that if it took him more than a decade to take the first step toward getting better, there are many kindred souls in the hockey world -- and beyond -- searching for the same inspiration.

"By hiding it, you're just digging a hole," Hirsch says. And the more time passes, the deeper that hole gets. "That's why early awareness and early diagnosis is so important."

When he returned to the ice in the fall of 1994 with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Binghamton, New York, Hirsch was exceptional. He continued to impress at the 1995 world championships for Canada. On April 7, 1995, the Rangers traded him to the Canucks. After splitting duties with Kirk McLean, Hirsch was named to the All-Rookie Team and finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting.

But he still hadn't found answers to the dark thoughts that continued to plague him. As Hirsch struggled in silence, what his teammates saw was a guy who acted flaky, sometimes missed practice or left early, and didn't seem like a "team" player.

"Guys just looked at me differently," Hirsch recalls.

What had been places of refuge -- the dressing room, the ice, the goal -- had become just as rife with peril. He timed his trips to the rink so that he arrived at the last second. He showered and left before most teammates were off the ice.

"A lot of the group kind of avoided me because they didn't understand," Hirsch says. "I don't blame them. It's not their fault. I hid it, and I didn't tell anybody."

Another day of reckoning came during that 1995-96 season, while Hirsch and the Canucks were on a road trip through the New York area.

Before a morning skate on Long Island, Hirsch pulled one of the trainers aside in a lonely corner of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and told him that he needed help. The trainer promised to find the goalie someone to talk to.

That night, Hirsch punched Islanders winger Andrei Vasilyev -- and played miserably in a 5-0 loss to the Islanders.

"I shouldn't even have been playing," he recalls.

The next morning, while trying to prepare for a game against the New Jersey Devils, Hirsch felt as though he was having an out-of-body experience during the morning skate, something he would later learn is called "anxiety depersonalization," which can be caused by severe stress.

"I'm just like catatonic," he says. "I can't do anything."

The goaltender told the team he couldn't play that night, and backup Mike Fountain filled in against the Devils.

Less than a week later, Hirsch met with a mental health professional who diagnosed his condition as obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, which finally gave Hirsch's torment a name and started his slow journey to recovery.

The next game, he shut out the Dallas Starsand would go on to win three in a row. But knowing what he was dealing with was one thing. Finding the right people to help treat it was another.

"It's like the weight was lifted off my shoulders," he says. "But you have years of work of therapy ahead of you to retrain your brain."

He didn't share his diagnosis with his teammates. He still feared that telling people he had mental health issues would harm his career.

Unlike the way OCD is often portrayed in movies and on television, with behaviors like compulsive hand washing or checking the stove countless times, Hirsch's symptoms were invisible but powerfully disruptive.

"You're continually trying to figure stuff out in your head," he explains. "You're constantly worried."

Many of Hirsch's fellow Canucks knew there was something serious going on with their young teammate but didn't know how to approach him.

Some of them still tried to reach out. Hirsch recalls captain Trevor Linden inviting him to lunch to talk. It was helpful, although Hirsch still wasn't at a point where he could confide that he was suffering from an anxiety disorder. The stigma in the world of hockey was still too strong to take such a risk.

Veteran Dave Babych was likewise unaware of the specifics of Hirsch's torment, but always made sure Hirsch wasn't alone for dinners on the road. It was a simple gesture on Babych's part, but even now the defenseman seems surprised at how important those moments of kindness were to Hirsch.

"It wasn't that the players didn't care. It was just that nobody understood what it was or how to deal with it," says Babych, who recalls coming to the rink one day and finding Hirsch curled up in the fetal position in a corner of the dressing room. "You're just a human, and you're concerned. And it was a little scary, to be honest with you."

Dr. Mark Anderson is a psychologist with more than 20 years of experience specializing in anxiety disorders. He estimates that as much as 20 percent of the population will deal with some form of severe anxiety, which can be rooted in a combination of factors, including biology, life circumstances and genetics. Many people, like Hirsch, are not diagnosed or directed into proper treatment for years.

Anderson, who began treating Hirsch in 2004, explained that once diagnosed, a patient has to take core courses to understand the basic path to recovery. That includes understanding you're not a freak, you're not alone and you're not at fault for feeling the way you feel. Then you move on to specialized courses that address your particular disorder.

Treatment often involves medication, especially in the early stages, and then behavior therapy. Part of that process involves repeatedly confronting the things that create the anxiety so they can be put in the proper context -- and the person can respond without withdrawing or relying on OCD rituals to reduce anxiety.

Anderson, who likens panic attacks to having your head held underwater in a swimming pool, says the success rate for behavior therapy is between 80 percent and 85 percent, with "success" being defined as at least an 80 percent reduction in symptoms

"Once they've recovered, you want to hire them to run our company," Anderson says of people with OCD. "They're extremely resilient and fabulous problem solvers."

Like Hirsch, for example, who -- after playing parts of two more seasons for the Canucks and then briefly for theWashington Capitalsand Stars -- went on to serve as a goaltending coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues.

"I'm in a great place right now," says the divorced father of three children (Alexa, 18; Hayden, 16; and Farrah, 12) who continues to engage in occasional maintenance for his disorder.

Since Hirsch's tenure as goaltending coach in St. Louis ended in 2014, he has done broadcast analysis for Sportsnet in Canada. His evaluations are sharp and to the point -- and often delivered with a disarming sense of humor.

But in addition to sharing his hockey expertise, Hirsch also felt called to share his personal experiences, in the hopes of further opening up dialogue that is still too often silenced by feelings of shame or uncertainty.

Players have more resources now than in the past, such as a well-developed NHL/NHL Players' Association behavioral health program that offers anonymous help for a host of issues, including mental health concerns. But it's not a perfect safety net.

"Guys shouldn't fall through the cracks at all," Babych says. "But it still happens."

Hirsch wants to help tighten that net, working alongside another former NHL netminder, Clint Malarchuk.

"If I had somebody, like an ex-player who I could have reached out to confidentially -- not a doctor, necessarily -- it probably could have saved my career," Hirsch said. "I talked to Clint Malarchuk. He says the same thing."

Malarchuk is no stranger to battling mental health issues. The former Quebec Nordiques, Capitals and Buffalo Sabres netminder struggled during and after his career with depression, OCD and other issues, including an attempted suicide. Malarchuk recalls a casual conversation with Hirsch a few years back, when both were NHL goaltending coaches, during which Hirsch said he hoped someday to be able to share his story with Malarchuk.

"When Corey reached out to me, I said, 'Oh god, Corey, you don't know how much this means to me,'" Malarchuk says. "It's a great step for somebody when they start to reach out and try to help others."

Now the two are teaming up to help raise awareness of mental health issues within the game. They've got plans for a website and are working with Anderson and other professionals to develop a program that they're tentatively calling "Mental Health Unmasked."

"I think it's terrific, what they're doing," Babych says.

One of the first orders of business will be to reach out to the goaltending fraternity -- as well as to Hockey Canada and USA Hockey -- to gather support and resources that can be made available to players at various stages of their careers. Hirsch and Malarchuk believe there is an opportunity to raise awareness and to offer help at every level of hockey -- from the NHL to grassroots programs, where players still face stigma and are often hesitant to reach out for help.

"Together we can have some juice here," Malarchuk says.

And to Hirsch, there is something comforting and powerful in the idea that he finally has a teammate in his struggle -- that he is no longer alone and that no other players should have to be.

It makes that lonely hotel room and the young man with a stick blade in his hand seem so very far away.

Related Topics:
sportsespnmental illnessnew york rangersclint malarchukmental healthdr mark andersontoronto maple leafsocdanxietygoaliesvancouver canucksnhlcorey hirschdave babychobsessive compulsive disorder
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