How former OHL standout Joey Hishon is finding new hockey joy in Owen Sound

Colorado Avalanche centre Joey Hishon controls the puck ahead of Anaheim Ducks right-winger Chris Wagner. (Christine Cotter/AP)

Joey Hishon has spent most of his life thinking about hockey.

For years, that meant thinking about himself as a player, fixing his singular focus on a promising NHL career as he honed his skills in his hometown of Stratford, Ont. before developing into a top prospect with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack.

“My real passion my entire life has been hockey,” Hishon, 30, told Sportsnet earlier this week. “I've dedicated so much time to the game and done so much to try and get myself to be the best player I could possibly be. [It was] all I ever really thought about, to be honest.”

That passion, and the staunch support of those around him, is what propelled him to the kind of success that saw the Colorado Avalanche call his name with the 17th overall pick at the 2010 NHL Draft. It’s also what ultimately pulled him through the most difficult period of his hockey life, which began just a year later when a devastating concussion suffered during the 2011 Memorial Cup tournament put his health and career in jeopardy.

Since officially retiring as a player in 2018, his career cloaked and ultimately cut short by injuries and lingering concussion symptoms, hockey has still been front-of-mind for Hishon – just, in a different way. Now, thanks to a reunion with his OHL general manager, Dale DeGray of the Attack, he’s learning to look at the game through a different lens: as an assistant coach and assistant GM.

“I'm very fortunate and lucky to have that opportunity – whether I'm on the bench coaching or I'm doing skill development with the players or I'm out scouting or I'm helping Dale with different things on the management side of it, I get to experience a lot of different things,” said Hishon, who’s particularly intrigued by the scouting and management side – “It's so cool to be able to evaluate players and try and build an organization,” he added.

That he’s embarking on this next chapter of his career in his hockey home away from home in Owen Sound makes the journey that much more meaningful – not just for Hishon, but for DeGray, too.

“Any organization that has the ability to bring back one of their players, let alone one of their top players to ever play for them, I think would be ecstatic to have that opportunity,” DeGray told Sportsnet. Owen Sound will always connect the two – they both joined the Attack around the same time in 2007, DeGray as GM and Hishon as one of his leading forwards.

“Dale's kind of like a family member to me. I've known him since I was 15 years old and we've always had such a close relationship,” said Hishon. “Even when I left Owen Sound and started to play pro hockey, Dale was always in touch, always asking questions about how I was doing when I was injured and stuff. So, for him to hire me and now to be able to work alongside with him … I just try and learn as much as I can from him.”

After a life spent playing, Hishon is no longer experiencing the game through that singular focus he had as a player driven by his own development.

“It's so much different than when you're a player. Dale said to me, ‘As a player, you only ever have to worry about yourself. But as a staff member, you're worrying about everybody around you and everybody involved in the organization,’” said Hishon.

There are still tough days for Hishon.

“Concussion-wise, obviously that's a very tough thing to go through and I really feel for anyone in those positions. But they've got to stay positive and realize that there's light at the end of the tunnel … if you don't sabotage your own happiness and your own path and realize, you know, you can get through it. I think it's so important to have that mindset.”

That mindset, and the ability to pass his knowledge along to a new generation of players, has been a source of hockey joy for Hishon.

“I think I'm at my best – or any staff member, I think we're at our best – when we're thinking about the kids first and putting their needs ahead of our own and really trying to focus on how we can help them,” he said. “I think you're also a lot happier as a person as well when you're not so hyper-focused on yourself.

“I feel like when you're looking at the people around you and trying to put their needs before your own, when that's able to happen … that joy just kind of comes naturally.”

As for his ability to lace up the skates and fly? Well, DeGray can see that that still comes naturally, too.

“You only have to watch him play two-on-two or three-on-three with the kids or watch Joey in practice if he gets to run a line if we’re short staffed … it's just remarkable how little he's lost and how much the kids look at it and go ‘Holy crap, this guy can still play,’” said DeGray.

“So, to have him around and be able to do that and basically be a sounding board for all these kids – and Joey’s not that far gone from the game itself – but it's an easy sell to anybody that knows hockey or knows junior hockey, and if they've looked into Owen Sound at all, to look up Joey Hishon’s name and go, ‘Wow, this kid was an unbelievable junior player,’ and had it not been for a concussion, where would he be now? This young man now gets to teach and pass on what he knows to all these young junior-aged players.”

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