Book review by Daniel Gawthrop posted on The British Columbia Review on November 11, 2022
The Save of My Life: My Journey Out of the Dark
by Corey Hirsch, with Sean Patrick Conboy
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2022
$32.99 / 9781443461092
It must be hard to write a good topical hockey book these days. The goalposts, as it were, keep shifting on the zeitgeist as Canada’s national sport transforms with every breaking news story. A decade ago, it was a spate of suicides and other premature deaths among hockey enforcers that renewed the debate about fighting while starting new conversations about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and mental health issues. More recently, as I outlined in another piece for BC Review, efforts to make the game more inclusive have led to new opportunities for women, Indigenous and racialized players, and those from other marginalized groups. Even the sport’s reputation as the last bastion of homophobia has been put under the microscope, and a zero tolerance approach to bullying and sexual assault/harassment has gone mainstream.
Then there’s the biggest scandal ever to hit the sport in this country: the revelation that Hockey Canada has paid nearly $9 million in sexual assault settlements to twenty-one complainants since 1989, with our national junior team implicated in at least two major incidents of gang rape. Since the news broke a few months ago, Hockey Canada has seen its revenues hemorrhage as government and outraged sponsors have slammed the brakes on funding while calling for new leadership at the disgraced organization. (The old leaders, it seems, were the last to get the memo: it was only on October 11 that the CEO and entire board of directors finally walked the plank. Nothing says it’s time to go quite like a boycott from Tim Horton’s and Bauer, brands as inseparable from the game as our flag itself.)
Landing in hockey’s dark night of the soul is this new memoir by Sportsnet commentator and former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch. The Save of My Life is co-authored by Sean Patrick Conboy, editor-in-chief of The Player’s Tribune, an online sports magazine dedicated to stories seldom told from the athlete’s perspective. Although its in-house style suggests that most, if not all the articles are ghost written, the first-person voice approach has proven highly popular. Hirsch’s story, which first appeared as an essay in TPT in February 2017, was no exception. Until then, no NHL player had ever unburdened himself in public about his own mental health issues — in this case, sharing what it’s like to live with pure obsessive compulsive disorder.
Hirsch’s story resonated with readers because of how well it captured the solitary nature of his struggle, and how agonizingly long it was. The biggest obstacle, he revealed, was an unspoken code of masculinity in which NHL players could not be seen as weak or vulnerable; they were expected to tough it out rather than seek help for their problems. Before he finally got the help he needed and was diagnosed, the author struggled with spiraling depression and suicidal intentions that led to chronic exhaustion and weight loss while confusing and frustrating friends and family, romantic partners, teammates and coaches. In the article, Hirsch mentioned the “dark thoughts” that plagued him throughout this period, describing their many effects but without disclosing the actual thoughts themselves, as if the details were too gory to share. I recall thinking: Dude, those thoughts you clearly don’t feel safe enough to reveal here must have been pretty horrible for you to get into your car and nearly drive off a cliff.
More than five years later, the book version of Hirsch’s story tells us what those thoughts were. In the first fifteen pages, the jocular, red-headed netminder-cum-TV-colour-commentator tells us of the moment it occurred to him that some men can be attractive. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a simple observation turns into the dreadful fear that he might be gay. Then — with the typical OCD trajectory of paranoia — Hirsch feels the terror of certainty that everyone he knows is aware of these thoughts, or soon will be, and that he will then be exposed, humiliated, and drummed out of the NHL for being gay. Even though he isn’t.
This is a promising opener. It suggests that Hirsch is about to explore the issue of homophobia, which he notes is a big problem in sports and society. “Being outed as a gay professional athlete would have been a death sentence, back then,” he begins, recalling his panic attack in 1994. “So my brain seized on that irrational fear and spun it out of control.” But then, informing us that he subsequently learned through therapy that he wasn’t gay, and that sexuality was not the source of his problem, Hirsch is content to drop the subject for the rest of the book. If he had been gay and just confused, he concludes, then the discovery would have been a relief because he would finally have an answer for all that confusion and suffering.
“I would have been the happiest person in the world,” he writes. “Forget my career. Forget what anybody thought. If that was the answer, I would have embraced it and never looked back.” (Really? Just drop your career and come out of the closet, without so much as a backward glance? But what about that “death sentence”?) His other dark thoughts include an irrational fear of HIV — that he must have had the AIDS virus and would pass it on to his girlfriends through sex, or his teammates through an accident — and the classic OCD symptom of imagining doing harm to loved ones, despite having no desire to, and feeling guilt over it. Hirsch recalls these moments with candour, humility, and self-deprecating humour.
The narrative approach here is conventionally autobiographical. We begin with the athlete’s childhood in Calgary and rise to the game’s elite professional level, followed by the discovery of his problem at the peak of his career, the inevitable nervous breakdown, and his ultimate triumph through therapy, self-respect, and the support of loved ones. Hirsch recalls his nervous energy as a child, probably undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and reveals how his identity became obsessively tied to being a hockey goalie. There are 15,000 people watching you, he notes, which only triggers obsession about not losing the game, your job or identity. “The underlying anxiety fuels the vigilance,” he says. “And I think that’s why certain types of brains are drawn to playing goalie and throwing themselves in front of pucks. You’re almost at home in all that chaos and fear and paranoia. But then what happens when you get off the ice? It’s not so easy to shut down that Terminator supercomputer.”
As in the Player’s Tribune article — pieces of which appear almost verbatim throughout the book, including the dramatic scene of his near suicide on a Kamloops mountain — Hirsch provides a blow-by-blow account of key moments on his OCD journey. As he recalls the many missed meetings and meals, the no-shows for practice (he even sat out the Manhattan tickertape parade after his New York Rangers beat his future team, the Vancouver Canucks, for the Stanley Cup), a portrait emerges of a young man whose behaviour was itself a cry for help that most people didn’t recognize or failed to answer. Hirsch thanks the people who did support him in his darkest moments — a time when only a third of his teammates were sympathetic, another third were indifferent, and the final third dismissed him as an asshole. Canuck players he singles out for praise include Dave Babych, Alex Mogilny, and Russ Courtnall.
The book is helpful in reinforcing the importance of professional referral and proper diagnosis. Fresh from his Stanley Cup win, Hirsch began his search for help by finding a therapist in the Yellow Pages. After subjecting him to hypnotherapy and a written test for which he paid $900 (“literally one of those personality tests that you can take online now for free”), this pseudo-shrink violated the ethics code by contacting Hirsch’s mother, telling her that her son was gay. Fortunately, Hirsch ended up getting much better help than that. Eventually he was able to provide loving guidance and support for one of his daughters, also diagnosed with OCD.
The Save of My Life makes for exhausting reading at times, as Hirsch frequently demonstrates the never-ending loop of his internal monologues as they actually unfolded. This is intentional on his part, and to some extent necessary for illuminating his subject. But the use of repeated words and phrases to emphasize obsession — a device that worked in the Player’s Tribune piece, titled “Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark, Dark” — can get tiresome in a book. Halfway through the narrative, in a passage describing “the tsunami of anxiety [that] was crushing” him, with people’s names shifting from person to person in his head, Hirsch repeats FIRST NAME LAST NAME, or some variation of these words, in all caps, for more than a page.)
There is good storytelling here. The book is filled with anecdotes from Hirsch’s playing career, including the infamous “postage stamp goal” by Sweden’s Peter Forsberg in the shootout that decided the Olympic gold medal game at Lillehammer, and a terrifying incident in Moscow in which Hirsch was mugged in an alley and thrown into a van, Russian mafia-style. Through all these stories, the reader is moved by the author’s long and difficult journey, which is marked by relationships that ended badly. These include a torturous romance with the woman of his dreams, whose problems he discovers — in the worst possible way — were far worse than his own. There’s also the nagging question of how Hirsch’s NHL career might have panned out had the highly talented goalie been diagnosed sooner.
My first thought on learning about this book was, why now? COVID delays aside, shouldn’t it have been published right after the Player’s Tribune post in 2017? Given all that has happened in the game since Hirsch revealed his condition, what more can we learn from his story? If the book’s target audience is young people and hockey fans suffering from undiagnosed mental illness, there is educational value in Hirsch’s experience, and useful information in its summary of OCD symptoms, its mention of famous role models, its advice on treatment, and its tips for being a good ally to those who are struggling.
That said, there are missed opportunities here. Given his profile and platform — Hirsch also co-hosts the Player’s Tribune podcast Blindsided — his memoir would have benefited from a deeper unpacking of the toxic masculinity that proved such a factor in his mental health challenges. Even the reference to homophobia early in the book seems not to recognize an inherent irony: Hirsch’s “dark thoughts” represent the most glaringly homophobic psychology possible. Exhibit ‘A’ of the NHL’s problem, in fact. Rather than simply stating the obvious — that homosexuality was a “death sentence” during his playing years — he might have explored and condemned the bigotry that made this true. He could also have expressed solidarity with players who actually are gay (“If I felt this afraid, how much worse was it for them?”) and explored the parallels between closeted, self-loathing homophobia and stigmas surrounding mental illness as factors that prevent so many elite male athletes from being true to their authentic selves. (Come to think of it, this would make a great topic for Blindsided, with Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop, still the only openly gay NHL draftee, as Hirsch’s guest.)
Other oversights could have been fixed with an edit. For example, if you’re going to make passing reference to NHL coaches who once interviewed you for jobs years ago, you needn’t include Bill Peters — unless you also mention that Peters was later fired as a coach and cancelled from the NHL after being exposed as a racist bully. Similarly, you may have done great things as both a player and a consultant for Hockey Canada and be rightfully proud of that work. But one hopes that a brief mention, or at least a footnote, about the scandal that has engulfed the organization, has been added — or will be — to the published version of this book.