Brotherly Love Beset by panic attacks, Toronto's Shayne Corson turned to linemate and in-law Darcy Tucker for help

Oct. 22, 2001
Oct. 22, 2001

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Oct. 22, 2001

Brotherly Love Beset by panic attacks, Toronto's Shayne Corson turned to linemate and in-law Darcy Tucker for help

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.

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2001 issue Original Layout

"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

Soon Corson and Tucker went everywhere together. Corson had shed
the off-ice 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 home-cooked 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 a 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
Shayne'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."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI FAMILY AFFAIR Tucker (left) and Corson had an unusually strong bond even before Darcy married Shayne's sister three years ago.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA FALLING LEAF Tucker was knocked around by the Toronto media last season for taking penalties while trying to protect Corson.COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS FACING UP By the playoffs Corson (here grappling with the Devils' Sergei Brylin) had his anxiety under control.
"He had pills for his stomach, pills for his anxiety," Tucker
says of Corson. "I'd make sure he took the right ones."
"I'd wake up in the middle of the night panicking," says Corson,
"my heart pounding, tears in my eyes."