TORONTO – Corey Hirsch was immortalized on Swedish postage and had to settle for a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics because of Peter Forsberg's iconic shootout goal. Fifteen years later, he has 10 of the stamps and wonders at how time flies.
Corey Hirsch's career goals were pretty clear. He was going to stop an avalanche of pucks in major junior hockey, get himself drafted, become an NHL superstar, sip champagne from the Stanley Cup and retire on his own terms, when the time was right.
That was Hirsch's dream. Nowhere was there a part about becoming a stamp collector. But the 36-year-old goaltending coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs developed into a philatelist with a refined taste for one Swedish stamp in particular, the one that features a young Peter Forsberg tucking the puck past a young Canadian goaltender to clinch the gold medal for Sweden at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
"I think I have about 10 of those stamps," says Hirsch, the Canadian on the famous piece of Swedish postage. "I have some buddies back home that have the stamp. They found it on eBay. You can get everything on the Internet now."
Hirsch remembers the Forsberg shootout goal – the Swede faking to his forehand and almost drifting past his net before pulling the puck to his backhand and slipping it beneath his glove – as though it were yesterday. But yesterday was February 27, 1994. Yesterday was 15 years ago.
A 21-year-old Hirsch was busy putting check marks on his career to-do list when the opportunity to play for Canada at the Olympics came along. Hirsch had starred for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League, and was drafted by the New York Rangers in the eighth round in 1991. In his first season of professional hockey with the Binghamton Rangers, the little left-handed goalie with the shock of red hair was the American Hockey League's goaltender of the year.
Blocking Hirsch's path to Broadway and bigger things in the NHL was the Rangers' goaltending tandem of Mike Richter and Glenn Healy. While Hirsch was waiting his turn, Tom Renney, his old coach from Kamloops and Canada's head coach for Lillehammer, asked him to play for his country.
The Olympics would be a great experience. They would help in his overall development. Hirsch had no idea then, and not for a long time afterwards, that the Games would be the greatest highlight in his budding hockey career.
"I was never fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup," he says. "Lillehammer is my number one memory."
But Lillehammer was just a stop along the way to the NHL in 1994. The mountain the Medicine Hat, Alta., native really wanted to climb was with the Rangers, and at the top of it was the Stanley Cup. Once Hirsch arrived in Norway, and started enjoying family-style dinners in the athletes' village with bobsledders, famous skiers and speed skaters with giant thighs, he caught the Olympic buzz. The excitement was palpable. It was the greatest winter show on Earth.
"The viewing highlight of the Olympics was not a particular event but realizing that as an athlete, as a player, I always had the goal of going to the NHL. I was at the Olympics, but in the back of my mind I was still playing to get to the NHL," Hirsch says. "But these other people spent their entire lives training every day for one 30-second moment where they had to be bang on. And they spent four years waiting for that moment, and that's a long time to wait for a moment that can bring heartache, or unbelievable glory."
Nobody was predicting much glory for the Canadian hockey team. It was four years before the NHL would embrace the Olympics and send its best players to Nagano. Renney had a team of mostly no-names, other than Czech star Petr Nedved, who had gained his Canadian citizenship during a contract dispute with the Vancouver Canucks and national team, and a young star from the U. S. college ranks named Paul Kariya.
But Canada surprised the Czechs in the quarter-finals, and beat the Finns in the semi-finals to set up a showdown with Sweden.
The teams were tied 2-2 after regulation time, remained tied after a 10-minute overtime and were still squarely knotted after five shooters per side had taken their shot in the shootout.
"They shot first in the sudden death part and missed, and then we had a chance to win it," Hirsch says. "Petr Nedved had Tommy Salo beat. He had a wide open net but, as soon as he goes to shoot, the puck flips on its edge and rolls off his stick. That was Canada's chance. Peter Forsberg comes down next and scores that great goal, and Paul Kariya couldn't get it back for us. But you know what, Petr Nedved was originally a Czech, wasn't he? So winning would not have been fair."
Hirsch returned to the Rangers' farm team after the Olympics and was eventually traded to Vancouver, where he put another check mark on the to-do list by being named to the NHL's all-rookie team in 1995-96. That was as good as it would get. Within a few years Hirsch was a journeyman, riding buses around the minor leagues, while knowing that his big chance to make it in the NHL had come and gone.
But Hirsch can live with an unfinished checklist. He can accept getting beaten by Forsberg and collected by philatelists the world over. It is the simple math that the Olympic silver medallist finds most troubling. Hirsch was a 21-year-old in Lillehammer. Today he is a 36-year-old father of three.
"The Olympics doesn't feel like 15 years ago. It seems like six months ago," he says.
"It's funny, I don't even think of [the Forsberg goal]. I think about how I have three children now and a medal from the Olympics that I can show them, and that's really cool, no matter what colour it is."
By JOE O’CONNOR
National Post, Toronto, Canada
The story is published with kind permission by the National Post