Circle 2017 as the year Corey Hirsch let his voice be heard.
In February, the Olympic medal-winning Canadian goaltender penned a brave, inspiring and raw portrait of his own battle with mental health for The Players’ Tribune.
And this week, Hirsch was announced as the colour commentator for Sportsnet 650, the new flagship radio station for Vancouver Canucks games.
Though drafted by the New York Rangers and making pit stops in Washington and Dallas, Hirsch played the bulk of his NHL career in Canucks red, gold and black before eventually making the leap to the analyst booth, as all pro goaltenders are legally obliged to do.
The 45-year-old Hirsch will be joined on-air by play-by-play man Brendan Batchelor, who earned a call-up from the Vancouver Giants, and couldn’t be more thrilled.
“It feels good to be back in Vancouver, that’s for sure. I love living here. I loved playing here,” says Hirsch over the phone, three time zones westward and on his way into the rink.
“You go away from home for a long time, and you end up coming back to your roots.”
We caught up with the new voice of the Canucks to discuss the Sedins’ contract year, Bo Horvat‘s contract, Chris Tanev‘s trade worth, Brock Boeser‘s Calder chances, and if Jacob Markstrom can really be the real deal for real.
SPORTSNET.CA: What is your take on promoting Travis Green to NHL head coach this season?
COREY HIRSCH: He’s a former player as well. There’s a new generation of coaches coming along. The old tyrant type coach doesn’t work anymore. The players are so much different. You need someone that understands what it’s like to be a player. That’s why Travis has done a great job where he’s been [with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks and AHL’s Utica Comets]—he can relate to today’s player. With all these young guys coming in, that’s what they need.
Jim Benning was a bit of a player on July 1, picking up notable free agents like Michael Del Zotto and Sam Gagner. How do you view management’s approach this summer?
Look at what happened to Edmonton [during its prolonged rebuild]. They tried to throw a bunch of young guys on the ice, had them continue to lose, and thought they’d get better. Well, they realized that didn’t work. They had to get a goalie, get some defencemen, then they got Connor McDavid. Look at Toronto. They infused a bunch of older veteran players [under Dave Nonis and Brian Burke], and that didn’t work.
“We’ve all learned from what happened in Edmonton and Toronto.”
What the Canucks are doing by signing those [UFAs] is they’re keeping their team competitive. You can bring a bunch of young guys in, but if they go out and get schwacked every night, they don’t learn anything. The veterans will help keep them competitive and bring the young guys along in their development. That’s the best way to do it. We’ve all learned from what happened in Edmonton and Toronto.
To be competitive, however, you need a true No. 1 goaltender. Is Jacob Markstrom that guy?
I definitely think so. It’s his time. He has to stay healthy, and that’s an understatement. He’s 27. That’s perfect because that’s when goalies mature. You have the 26-to-33 age range for goalies where they’re at their best. They’ve learned from their mistakes, and now it’s time for him to be a No. 1. They’ve developed him, brought him along, and there’s no question he can do it. He’s a good goalie.
Describe Markstrom’s game. What do you see when you watch him?
Well, he’s a big, athletic goalie. So he has the ability to make saves he shouldn’t. His biggest [hurdle] is that sometimes he gets in his own way. During a game, I see things will bother him that shouldn’t. That’s part of maturing. He’s made his mistakes, and it’s time to turn the corner. I’ve seen him play some fantastic hockey. He’s had to lean on a No. 1 veteran guy [Ryan Miller] who’s not there now. He’s the guy.
I liked the pickup of Anders Nilsson to back up Markstrom. He’s also 27, and last season he played 26 games with a .923 save percentage behind a poor defensive team in Buffalo. What are the chances Nilsson steals the No. 1 spot?
If Markstrom doesn’t perform, that’s probably what will happen. You can’t wait for a guy at that level. If the other guy is ready to be a No. 1, you have to give him that opportunity. But for right now, it’s all about Markstrom. It’s all about giving him a chance to be a (No.) 1. Nilsson’s a good goalie, but long term Markstrom’s the guy when it’s time to make a Cup run—three, four, five years from now. He’s who you want in your net.
The Sedins will be 37 at puck drop and entering another contract year. Barring a surprise, Vancouver is pegged as deadline seller. Is it impossible to trade Daniel and Henrik?
No. Everyone thought Wayne Gretzky was impossible to trade, right? It’s just going to take a lot of creative management and thinking. However: Do I think it’s going to happen? Probably not. These are ambassadors in this city. They’re loved in this city. They’re two of the best people to have ever played the game. I see them retiring as Canucks. They’re going to have to accept a lesser role eventually, and they’re the type of teammates who can do that. They’re still good players, and there’s teams out there that would like to have them.
How well do you know them?
I know them to say hello. They were drafted when I was on my way out of Vancouver, so it’s neat that it’s come full circle. As far as what they do in the community, there’s very few NHLers that do as much as they do.
So, you’re on your way out in 1999 when they come in. What do you remember about the conversation or hype around the twins at that time?
It was more about Brian Burke than it was about the Sedins, because he made that super-huge deal to make it happen. When you got to the Sedins, it was, “They’ll be the cornerstones of the franchise,” and they have been for a long, long time. Now you need that next piece, and he’s not easy to find.
“Markstrom’s the guy when it’s time to make a Cup run—three, four, five years from now.”
Speaking of which, what do you see in Bo Horvat, who remains unsigned? How should management handle this next contract?
I like him. I’d be leery of anointing him the next Sedin or Trevor Linden or anything. I’d never want to put that pressure on him, but you also don’t want to lose him. He’s a good person and a good enough player that a long-term deal wouldn’t be a problem. He can handle it and live up to the pressures of it. But he needs help. They need players around him. He’s a really good player. But if they’re expecting him to be a Daniel or Henrik, it’s not going to happen. Making him a solid piece of this franchise for a long time is a good position.
One guy who might help Horvat up front for years is Brock Boeser. What do you make of his chances to not only stick in the NHL this season but squeak into a seemingly wide-open Calder race?
There’s no question he’ll be part of this franchise moving forward. As far as the Calder, we don’t know what this [Nico] Hischier kid is going to be like in New Jersey. Yes, there’s no Connor McDavid, no Auston Matthews, but there’s still a lot of good rookies out there. You’ll see some young players surprise. They’re really talented coming in. They’re better at the NHL than at the junior level. They’re ready to play. It used to be that you had to put ’em in the minors and teach them. These kids are so well coached at college and junior hockey, they can step right in and play a role. Different generation. No question, Brock will be mentioned in the Calder race.
“Vancouver wants someone to bring them out their seats. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find the kid who does that.”
For you personally, which young Canuck excites you most?
I’m friends with [retired 30-goal NHL winger] Ulf Dahlen, so I’m really excited about his boy. If [Jonathan] is anything like his dad—with better hands and skill, which is what it sounds like—the kid’s a player. I know the family really well, and they are a solid, good family. He’s going to be a good teammate, a good leader on this team for a long time. Question is: When do you bring him into the fold?
Ever see Dahlen play firsthand?
As a kid. I was over there [in Sweden] when he was 14, 15 years old, and he was good then. He’ll be a lot like his dad. He’s a strong skater but he has to get bigger and stronger. His skating will improve. He’s got good puck protection. Don’t let his dad know I told ya, but he’s more skilled than he is. [laughs]
What’s your stance on AHL development? Should NHLers be brought up slowly?
Defencemen and goaltenders, yes. Forwards, no. Forwards will show you what they are within the first two years. The game is just different as a forward. It’s scoring. It’s skill. You have those, or you don’t. Defencemen and goalies need time to learn from their mistakes, and their mistakes are critical. At the NHL level, their mistakes are in your net. They need to go to the minors so they make less of them in the NHL. A forward makes a mistake, it’s not in your net all the time. There’s two more layers of protection.
The rumblings have died down, but there were suggestions that Vancouver would be open to trading Chris Tanev for the right return. At 27, does Tanev’s prime align with this rebuild?
[Trading Tanev] makes me a little nervous. Regardless of which direction you’re going, you need veteran players. He’s coming into his prime now, and I think that’s a mistake. From 26 to 32, defencemen are kinda in their prime. You’ve been with him for this long. Why trade him now when he’s about to become a really solid defenceman? If they make a Cup run three or four years from now, that puts him at 30, 31, which is perfect. That’s when you want him. An anchor on the blue-line like [Niklas] Hjalmarsson was in Chicago.
“Forwards will show you what they are within the first two years. It’s scoring, it’s skill. You have those, or you don’t.”
Big picture, the Canucks’ steady attendance decrease in a strong hockey market is an issue. Besides the team’s performance slipping, do you see any other reason for that?
When I played here [1995 to 1999] it was the same thing. They want to see a winning team. They’ve been spoiled, with the team going to the Cup in 2011 and having some good players. The people will come back. It has nothing to do with the organization. Fans want to see a team win. Diehard fans here will always support. They want someone to bring them out their seats. Who knows? Maybe they’ll find the kid who does that.