By Corey Hirsch, Retired/NHL, The Players’ Tribune
It’s the summer of 1994, I am standing at the edge of a cliff in Kamloops, British Columbia, and I am checking out.
In February, as a 21-year-old starting goalie, I’d backstopped Canada to an Olympic silver medal. In June, as the third goalie for the New York Rangers, I’d drunk out of the Stanley Cup. I have a girlfriend at home. I have a turbo sports car parked behind me. I have the horizon in front of me — so much horizon — and as I look out past the end of it, I am completely calm.
I’m going to see how fast this sports car can go … and drive it right off this cliff.
And then, finally, I’ll be at peace. My thoughts will be gone.
I get in my car and back up a mile and a half so I can get some speed. I’ve been down these roads hundreds of times, while playing junior hockey for the Kamloops Blazers. All I ever wanted to be, ever since I was a little kid, was a goalie. Ever since I saw Gerry Cheevers in that iconic fiberglass mask — you know the one, with the black stitches painted all over it — I just knew. That’s it. I want to be the guy behind that mask. I want to play in the NHL.
Now I’m 22 years old, and I’ve made it to the NHL. I have my whole life ahead of me.
And none of it matters.
I crank up the music. I slam my foot down on the gas and try not to think. I am done. I can’t do it anymore.
I’m in first gear, second gear, third gear….
I’m up to 100 mph.
The g-force sucks me back into the seat.
I’m up to 140.
I’m coming up to the cliff. I’m sorry to everybody — I really am. I’m so sorry. But I just can’t do it anymore.
I’m coming up to the edge of the cliff.
This is the end.
And then — for whatever reason — this vision pops into my head.
I slam on the brakes, and the car starts skidding — and skidding … and skidding. It skids for what seems like forever.
Until it stops.
All I can do is sit there, sobbing and sobbing.
Please, I think, somebody help me.
I can still recall the exact moment that my brain started lying to me. It was May 6, 1994, between Games 3 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. As the third goalie for the Rangers, I was what’s known as a “black ace.” When you’re a black ace, there’s no pressure. I wasn’t playing — I wasn’t even practicing every day, but I still got to travel with the team. I was just a 21-year-old kid with a front row seat to history.
I was standing at a bar in Washington, D.C., with two of the Capitals’ black aces. Back in those days, it was common for guys from different teams to hang out together. We were having a beer, just laughing and telling stories, when all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, and completely for no reason whatsoever….
I had this thought.
It was a horrible, ridiculous, dark thought.
Have you ever had one of those? A flash in your mind. Something totally absurd. It’s almost like your brain is telling you, “Think of the darkest, most horrible thing you can imagine.”
To give you the tamest example possible: Maybe you’re driving your car, and you imagine yourself turning the wheel and driving into oncoming traffic. You’d never do it, of course. So why are you thinking it? It’s absurd.
And then it’s gone. You think about your dog, or an email you have to send, or what you want to eat for lunch, and you don’t even have time to laugh it off, because it’s gone before you even have time to analyze it. It’s just a flash, you know?
But as I was standing there in the bar, the dark thought wouldn’t go away. It kept repeating and repeating. I was actively trying to get it out of my head — but the more I tried, the more I couldn’t stop thinking this horrible, dark, ridiculous thought. The thought hammered me, and I started freaking out. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t mad. I wasn’t anything.
Dude, what is going on? Where is this coming from?
I could barely breathe. I couldn’t hear the guys talking. All I could hear was this dark thought.
I made an excuse to the guys that I was tired, and I went back to my hotel room. But when I went to sleep, the thought was still hammering me, and it was actually getting heavier and louder.
I will never forget the last thought I had as I drifted off to sleep.
These thoughts are never going away.
When I woke up the next morning, after a deep sleep, they were still there. Not just still there in the background either. Still there, screaming at me.
I had no idea what was wrong with me. What do these thoughts mean? Am I a bad person? Did I do something wrong? Why is this happening?
Holy shit, am I going insane?
I mean, it’s not like there hadn’t been signs that something was up.
Two years earlier, during my first season in the AHL, I moved into this tiny apartment in Binghamton, New York. I was on the bottom floor, and I could hear the couple above me walking around all the time. The footsteps were deafening. It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep. I started leaving the house at night and not coming back until two in the morning, when I knew for sure that they would be asleep, and that I could finally be at peace.
But the crazy thing was, once I got on the ice, everything was fine. I was having an amazing year. I went 35-4-5 and was the AHL’s rookie of the year. But off the ice, I was a mess. I was so lonely. I would go home, and I would feel this horrible, unrelenting anxiety. Hanging over me. Hammering on me. I moved apartments five times that year to try to find peace.
But when summer came, I went back home to Calgary and everything was quiet again. The noise was gone. I figured I just had sensitive hearing and that the stress of being away from home for the first time had made it worse. For months, I was totally fine. I went to the ’94 Olympics with Team Canada, traveled the world, won a silver medal and then joined the Rangers for their playoff run. I was living the dream.
And then one night, I was at that bar in D.C. having a beer with the other two black aces and….
Darkness. Pure, relentless darkness. For no reason.
When I woke up the next morning, and the thoughts were still there, repeating over and over, I figured: Well, just get home. If you get back to Calgary, this will all go away, just like last time. You’ll be at peace.
But how was I going to get home without anyone from the Rangers knowing what was going on inside my brain? Because if they knew, I figured I would never play in the NHL again. I would be done.
After the morning skate, I grabbed an extra stick blade from the bin and stuffed it in my bag. When I got back to my hotel, I sat on the edge of the bed in silence and took out the blade.
My plan was to break my hand and hide the injury until the next day at practice. That way, I could go down after taking a shot, and the team would send me home to recover without knowing what was really going on. In those days, the blades were wooden and heavy as hell. I smashed the blade against my left hand three or four times, as hard as I possibly could.
I just couldn’t break it.
Instead, I bruised the hell out of it. I had to stay for the entire Cup run. Every single minute, I was dying inside. Night sweats, tremors every morning … the unrelenting thoughts and anxiety were crippling.
It got so bad that I told my parents I needed help. My mom actually got on the next flight to New York just so she could be with me, but she had no idea what to do. One day after practice, we went sightseeing so I could get some fresh air. We got to the top of the Empire State Building, overlooking the whole city, and….
I mean, think about this: All your son ever wanted to do was play in the NHL. He gets drafted by the New York Rangers. He’s along for the ride on a Stanley Cup run. He’s standing on top of the world, literally.
And he’s completely broken.
I looked my mom right in the eye and said, “I wish I could jump off this building right now.”
I really meant it. She started crying.
At the rink, guys would come up to me smiling, trying to bullshit.
“Hirschey, what’s up, bud?”
And it was like they weren’t even there. My brain was too full. My brain was on fire. I’d just nod and walk away.
The Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 54 years. New York City went crazy. The next morning, I was on the first flight back to Calgary. I didn’t stick around for the parade. No pictures. Nothing. Guys probably thought I was an arrogant jerk, but I didn’t care. I had to get out of there. I was desperate.
But when I got home, the thoughts didn’t go away. None of it made sense. I didn’t have any trauma in my life. I had never felt sad or worried before any of this started. I had a great childhood with amazing parents. My dad never missed a practice or a game of mine … not one. The weirdest thing of all was that I didn’t even feel much pressure when it came to my job. Hockey was the one distraction from my thoughts. I could go on the ice, and concentrate 100% of my brain on the puck, and feel at peace. When the national anthem started, the dark thoughts went away. But as soon as I got back to my locker after a game, the cycle would start all over again.
Hammering, hammering, hammering.
Darkness. Disgust. Shame. Anxiety.
I had no idea where to even begin looking for help. The words therapy and mental health just weren’t used in my household. I grabbed the Yellow Pages and looked for the friendliest ad for a therapist that I could find. But talking about my thoughts with the therapist only seemed to make things worse, and she didn’t give me any clinical diagnosis.
I’m not blaming her. Maybe I was too young and afraid to articulate what I was feeling. But at the end of my sessions with her, I felt like … Oh my God, what if all these thoughts are real?
And that’s when I got really scared. What if there’s no explanation? What if there’s no remedy? Maybe I was just losing my mind? The guilt and shame just compounded. I could barely get out of bed.
Then one day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. In my messed up brain, anything was better than being alone 24/7 with my dark thoughts. I decided to end my life. I went up to the top of the cliff in Kamloops and thought, I’m checking out. Let’s see how fast this car can go.
I am here today because of a vision that popped into my head at 140 miles an hour. I wish I could say that it was a warm and happy thought that stopped me. But it was actually just this:
What if I don’t die?
What if I survive this crash, and I’m severely injured, and I’m stuck in bed with all these dark thoughts, on repeat, for the rest of my life?
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