Less than two years ago, Corey Hirsch stepped out of the darkness.
In an exposing article for The Players’ Tribune, the former NHL netminder revealed a side of himself that he had kept hidden from the outside world — his struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression and how in 1994 he got into his car and came very close to driving it off a cliff.
“I always wanted to get my story out there and it just seemed like the time was right,” Hirsch exclusively told Sporting News in a wide-ranging telephone interview. “I always wanted to help people, too. I know what it was like when I was sick [and] to get out on the other side. When you’re sick you’re not doing well, you look for hope and you look for signs of hope and I was so discouraged . . . you feel like you’re doomed to a life like that.
“So my thing was, I’m going to get it out there and if it helps one person realize that you can get better, that was my goal.”
The decision to come forward was not one that Hirsch took lightly.
“The big thing was you’re always terrified to come out with a mental health issue because you think you’d never work again,” Hirsch, who’s now a radio analyst for the Vancouver Canucks, noted. “To me, that’s garbage because some of the most brilliant minds in the world have had mental health issues and go on to do amazing things.”
The fear is not Hirsch’s alone.
This past offseason, New York Islanders goalie Robin Lehner opened up to The Athletic about being diagnosed late last season as being bipolar and having both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma. He wrote in his essay, “The one thing that was still making me nervous was that bipolar stigma. I didn’t understand why I was so ashamed to say anything. Would I lose my job?”
“That’s why I didn’t say anything,” Hirsch said when Lehner was brought up, quickly adding that Lehner is having an outstanding season on Long Island. “The myth [that someone with a mental health issue can’t perform] is garbage because the numbers are 20 percent [of adults experience a mental health illness].
“You’re not immune to it. Nobody is. Every Stanley Cup team that wins a Cup, guess what, there’s four or five guys on that team that have a mental health issue and they seem to not have a problem winning a Stanley Cup. . . . You can’t tell me that just because you have a mental health issue . . . that you can’t be a champion.”
When I was sick 23 years ago and could barely get out of bed to get to practice….I never imagined this day possible. Thank you so much AlexEdler @NHL @Canucks @EdmontonOilers @Sportsnet650 @Sportsnet @GenePrincipe @sportsnetmurph @cmcdavid97 and so many more. I love you guys. pic.twitter.com/6XeUxdfO07
— Corey Hirsch (@CoreyHirsch) January 18, 2019
Hirsch played 108 games over seven seasons primarily as a backup with four NHL teams, recording a 34-45-14 record, a 3.13 goals-against average and a .896 save percentage. He finished his career in Europe and retired following the 2004-05 season. While other players have spoken out about the NHL’s mental health practices, Hirsch said that he does not blame the league or the NHL Players’ Association for his issues or lack of treatment during his playing days, adding that his teams had sports psychologists. He does note, however, that they need to do more.
“It’s inevitable, they have to. Mental health is a huge movement and if you don’t get on board you’ll get left behind,” he said. “We still need more. How we’re going to get more is by more players coming forward saying, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m struggling a little bit, I need some help.’
When pressed about what teams can do, he said they should have a psychologist, not just a sports psychologist, travel with them regularly. There is a line that would need to be carefully negotiated, however. Could teams begin conducting mental health assessments at the start of a season? Not so fast, says Hirsch, as concerns about stigmatization and of teams using that knowledge against their players creeps back in.
“That’s a private issue and most guys want to keep it private,” Hirsch said. “They do have that, where guys try to get into their psyche, but what are you using it for? Are you using it as a negative, to get in so you can get rid of somebody? That’s where that stuff gets a slippery slope. Are you using it to help a player or are you using it to see and say, ‘Hmm, he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, we’re not going to keep him.’
“I’m telling you, that stuff would happen. What are you using it for as a team?”
“24 years ago, I was playing in the NHL and driving around in a sports car. To the outside world, I had it all. But inside, I just wanted my dark thoughts to stop forever.”@CoreyHirsch has been there. He has a message for anyone who feels a similar way. #WorldMentalHealthDay pic.twitter.com/OUnAPEZkdE
— The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) October 10, 2018
Hirsch, 46, can’t help but wonder how his life would have played out had he gotten help earlier and if that help were more readily available then.
“My life would be completely different, completely different,” he told Sporting News. “Probably would have had a longer playing career, probably wouldn’t have had to suffer those days that I suffered. I spent three years hiding. . . . I wouldn’t change my life. I’m happy where I’m at but I didn’t have to suffer like I did and that’s what bothers me the most out of everything.”
Since coming forward, Hirsch has become an advocate for mental health. His Players’ Tribune article and a follow-up post in January 2018 have garnered widespread attention and helped bring mental health awareness to the forefront.
Last year, he created a website to blog about ways to address mental health issues. He also serves as a motivational speaker, works with The Center for Addiction and Mental Health and its GameChangers program, tweets in the hope that he can help just one person who is struggling with their mental health, and is passionate about bringing mental health awareness and training to teenagers.
GameChangers mental health information posters. These will go in every school I speak at across the country. No longer will our children not have the information they need to care for themselves through mental health. Thank you @hudsonsbay pic.twitter.com/NV3STp4XF8
— Corey Hirsch (@CoreyHirsch) January 29, 2019
His goal is to provide training for all students, not just student-athletes, and ensure that the next generation is comfortable seeking out help when needed. As he expressed, how people deal with their anxiety and depression makes a difference.
“My thing is to get into the high schools now, because why didn’t somebody teach me this stuff when I was in high school?” he said, adding that learning at a younger age the necessary tools to handle an issue can also help people in adulthood. “Was it that bad that you couldn’t teach somebody? That we had to sweep it under the rug that you could get depressed or that you could have obsessive thoughts? Why was I not taught that in high school? For people that have taken their lives, children, high schoolers, maybe by teaching them, maybe they didn’t have to.
“If we don’t start helping them learn about these disorders so that when they do happen to them they can recognize them right away, they can go to the doctor. They don’t have to be ashamed of it and that they can get help and start to lead a better life.”
Now looking back on the past two years, Hirsch doesn’t have any regrets about opening up about his struggles; actually, he has one: that he should have done it 20 years ago.