Two weeks ago, in an otherwise empty dressing room at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility, right wing Shayne Corson sat down and spoke candidly about his life. He is a fearless and ornery power forward who has played 15 distinguished NHL seasons, during which he has won a Stanley Cup and been a member of Canada's 1998 Olympic team. His former teammate on the Montreal Canadiens, Mark Recchi, has called him "the bravest player I know." Corson was happy to discuss any aspect of his career, but mainly he wanted to talk about last season and the times he cried.
"Much too often I'd wake up in the middle of the night panicking—my heart pounding, tears in my eyes," he said. "I wouldn't know what to do. I don't think I'd have made it if Tucksie hadn't been my roommate. Who knows how another teammate would have handled it."
Tucksie is Darcy Tucker, an equally fearless and ornery forward who plays left wing on the same line as Corson and who with Corson forms a duo that other Leafs call Brother Love. Three years ago Tucker married Corson's sister Shannon, a development that further solidified the two players' already uncommon bond, and last year Tucker witnessed a side of his brother-in-law that few others have seen. Corson, as might be guessed, isn't the type to let others know when he buckles. Admitting fear doesn't fit his hockey persona or his stoic heritage. "Calmly," Corson says. "That's how Dad did things."
Shayne and his sisters, Shannon and Patti, grew up in the blue-collar town of Barrie, Ont., 70 miles north of Toronto. Their father, Paul, was a 6'2", 235-pound Rodin statue of a man and an unshakable source of strength to the children and their mother, June. Paul was 17 when Shayne was born, and the narrow age gap meant that, as Shayne often says, "he was more like my brother and best friend than my father."
June and Paul owned, and all the Corsons worked at, a family-style restaurant, and Paul presided over it with a demanding work ethic and a determined optimism. He was fiercely loyal and loving to his family—Paul and Shayne kissed on the lips when they greeted each other, even as adults—and, as many of Barrie's numerous bikers can attest, Paul never backed down from a fight. "Dad was a pillar," says Shayne. "He didn't let you know if things troubled him. He was just there to make you feel better."
This was especially true, Shayne says, during the final stage of Paul's life, when his father, a smoker, battled the throat cancer that killed him in 1993, at age 45. "Last year I was having trouble with my esophagus—it was sore and swollen," says Shayne, who is a nonsmoker. "I kept going for tests in which doctors would put tubes down my throat and up my nose. Even though they didn't find anything serious, it started to play on my mind. You think, I'm 34. Is what happened to my dad going to happen to me? My teammates still don't know what went on. No one but Darcy and my family does."
His teammates do know that in training camp in September 2000 the 6'1" Corson suffered from a severe bout of ulcerative colitis, a digestive disorder that has plagued him for years. They know that by the start of last season he'd lost 20 pounds, rendering him pale and weak at 186. They know that after missing nearly all the preseason Corson sometimes seemed distracted or was, as one Leaf puts it, "a little off." They know that Corson, usually at the center of team gatherings, kept missing players' dinners and that he stayed in his hotel room a lot.
When Corson talked two weeks ago about his troubles, it was the first time he'd discussed them publicly. He told of the illness that began in his stomach, went to his throat (he also suffers from acid reflux, a condition in which acid from his stomach burbles up into his esophagus, causing severe heartburn) and finally got into his head. "I'd feel like I was having a heart attack," says Corson. "It was like everything was coming down on me at once. I didn't want to be away from home; I didn't want to be in crowds. It fed on itself, you know? The more scared I got, the more guilty I felt about being scared—I wanted to be strong! But it was so hard to be strong. Part of it was dealing with my dad's death, too. I cried for two weeks when he died, but that was it. I never really processed it.
"It's the sort of thing you hear about," Corson continues, "people having anxiety attacks and panic attacks, and you think it could never happen to you. But it does, and it takes over your life."
Being away from his wife, Kelley, and their four children, ages 9, 7, 5 and 2, on road trips was particularly tough on Corson. Twice, in St. Louis last November and in New Jersey two months later, he got so panicked that Tucker considered taking him to a hospital. Other nights Tucker would be awoken by Corson fumbling through his luggage looking for medication. "He had pills for his stomach and pills for his anxiety," says Tucker, 26. "I'd make sure he took the right ones. He was in no condition to be making choices."