BROTHERLY LOVE by Kostya Kennedy

October 22, 2001 issue of "Sports Illustrated"

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".

They would stay in their hotel room and watch TV, Corson’s hands and brow often soaked in sweat. Tucker didn't leave him, missing those team dinners, listening to Corson's fears and trying to calm him. With Tucker's help, Corson played in 77 of 82 matches, missing five games because of injuries. "I loved Darce before we went through all that," says Corson. "Now I feel like I owe the kid so much."

Their relationship traces back to the 1996-97 season, when Corson was traded from the St. Louis Blues back to the Canadiens, the team with which he'd broken in a decade earlier. Tucker was a 21-year-old rookie, outwardly brash after a few years of scoring prodigiously in the Western Hockey League but so nervous that he bit his nails and fidgeted incessantly. He had been raised milking cows on the family farm outside Castor, Alberta (pop. 970). Now he was in Montreal, single, with few friends, playing for the NHL’s most storied franchise.

After their first practice together Corson took Tucker to lunch. "Shayne liked Darcy because he reminded him of himself," says Paul Zullo, a longtime friend of Corson's and personal trainer for both players. "When Shayne broke in, he was nervous just like Darcy was. He also liked that Darcy was so feisty on the ice."

Soon Corson and Tucker went everywhere together. Corson had shed the office rambunctiousness that had landed him in highly publicized bar brawls (and in jail after one of them) when he was with the Canadiens in the early 1990s.  Instead he did things like invite Tucker for homecooked meals, especially when Corson's mother and sisters were in town. After the 5' 11", 185-pound Tucker was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 1997-98 season, he returned to Montreal to watch Corson in the playoffs. "After Dad died, Shayne needed a male figure in his life," says Shannon. "Darcy was it".

Corson and his mom both claim credit for inspiring the union between Shannon and Darcy. "I told Shannon that he would be the perfect little fellow to come into our family," says June. "He was a sweet, handsome farm boy."

June's prodding helped lead to courtship that included Shannon’s regularly phoning Darcy's hotel room and talking to Shayne for a half hour first; the couple's first movie together, in which they sat giggling at  Liar! Liar! and Tucker was too shy to hold Shannon's hand; romantic dates in Toronto; a wedding ceremony at a small church in Barrie, on June 27,1998; and now, a girl, Owynn, 2, and a boy, Cole, 1. "When Cole was born, I think Shayne was more excited than anyone,' says Shannon. "He was in the delivery room with us, and afterward he was running around at our house making sure everything was all right."

Today, as they begin their second full season as pivotal players on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, Corson and Tucker and their respective families live five minutes from each other in Toronto. They spend the summer in neighboring cottages on a piece of lakefront land in Muskoka, Ont., that they call "the family compound." They own a boat together. Their children are like siblings. "Sometimes I forget who Darcy is attached to," says June. "Is it Shannon or Shayne?  I guess it's all of us".

LAST SEASON was supposed to be glorious. Corson had left Montreal as a free agent and signed a three-year, $6.75 million contract with the Maple Leafs in July 2000 after spurning a richer offer from the Philadelphia Flyers. That deal brought him near his family and into a dressing room with Tucker, whom Toronto had traded for five months earlier. The Maple Leafs' brass hoped that Corson might add the measure of grit and offense that Toronto needed to win the Cup.

As players, Tucker and Corson are similar. While both have shown offensive ability -- Corson has scored more than 20 goals five times in his career, Tucker twice -- they prefer to skate into a scrum rather than into open ice. "He gives us more in the sandpaper department," said Leafs executive Bill Watters after Toronto acquired Tucker.

Last Nov. 2, playing against the New Jersey Devils, Tucker assisted on Corson's first goal as a Maple Leaf. There were few similar highlights, however. Corson lost his confidence in the offensive zone and attempted to offset his full-season career-low output of eight goals and 18 assists by relying heavily on physical play.  By season's end he'd amassed 189 penalty minutes, his highest total since 1995-96. He was also fighting his battles in a debilitated state, a circumstance that Tucker couldn't bear. Often Tucker charged after an opponent who had roughed up Corson.  In Toronto this was a sin: Family loyalty comes second to loyalty to the Maple Leafs.

The local media scolded Tucker for defending Corson and taking costly penalties. "I'm an emotional guy, and I play an emotional game", says Tucker, who had 141 penalty minutes, third highest on the team. "I didn't want anyone messing with Shayne. He was going through some things, and with him 34 and 20 pounds lighter than usual, I didn’t want him getting hurt."

Corson can’t pinpoint an event that quelled his panic attacks. His recovery was, he says, "a long and gradual process," in which he leaned on Tucker, spoke to a psychiatrist regularly and took his antianxiety medication. By the playoffs he had begun to shake his demons, and in Toronto's first-round sweep of the Ottawa Senators he shadowed star center Alexei Yashin so effectively -- Yashin had no goals and only 12 shots -- that he was arguably the Leafs' most valuable skater in the round.

Over the summer Corson gained back those 20 pounds and his levity. Zullo, who lives with Corson and his family in the off-season partly to keep Corson and Tucker eating healthfully, recalls that the two buddies would return from the market with ice cream and claim they'd bought it for the kids. "One time Shane’s (five year-old) daughter Sommer came to me and said, 'Uncle Paul, go see what Daddy's doing,'" Zullo says. "I walked into the kitchen, and Shayne and Darcy were devouring this huge tub of ice cream and cracking up. I let that one slide."

Last Thursday, against the Carolina Hurricanes, Corson converted the rebound of a Tucker shot for his first goal of the season and the 250th of his career. Brother Love played splendidly on either side of center Travis Green, and the Maple Leafs won 3-2. "Things are better this year," Corson says. "Panic is something I'll always have to deal with, but last year was as bad as it could get. If it had to happen, I'm lucky it happened the way it did. Sometimes I think it was fate that Darcy was there."

Return to Mac Anxiety Home Page
Return to "Anxiety in the News" Page

McMaster University Medical Centre, Hamilton Health Sciences  
Box 2000, Hamilton, Ontario L8N 3Z5
All rights reserved.
Revised: November 8, 2001

Hit Counter