Corey Koop grew up in the rink. His father was a long-time official in Squamish and Corey became an official at the age of twelve, as soon as he was able. For Corey it wasn’t only the family business but it was an easy way to make extra cash and spend more time at the rink. During his youth, Corey was primarily focused on playing hockey. Officiating was always there but it was on the back burner.
Despite being less than an hour from the Lower Mainland, Squamish is a small town and there is only so much hockey. In the winter, Corey was working recreational and Tier 4 games, the lowest division of “A” hockey in BC. It was in the spring and summer that Corey had the opportunity to officiate higher level hockey at an international tournament in Whistler. Not only was he working elite hockey, he was also working with elite local officials who were also working the Western Hockey League, American Hockey League, and receiving IIHF Assignments. These officiating opportunities that Corey had during the offseason were extremely valuable in his development as an official.
As Corey pursued his playing career, his officiating continued to progress. Corey moved to Vancouver Island and then to Manitoba to play Junior hockey, all the while working at the Major Midget level as a linesman. As he was preparing for his final year of Junior eligibility, Corey attended the WHL Development Camp in Calgary and at the end of that year, he made the decision to put his officiating career on hold play college hockey in the U.S. He would eventually call time on his playing career at the age of twenty-four. But it was during that final year of Junior hockey, playing for the Steinbach Pistons of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, that he had his first experience thinking about and experiencing poor mental health.
“I had some amazing billets that would sit down and chat with me… that was almost like my first counselling session.”
It was in his final year of Junior hockey, a long way from home and with his playing career winding down, that Corey began to feel like his mental health was suffering. He didn’t recognize what was happening and he was helped by his “amazing” billets, who were able to see that something might be wrong. They were able to help Corey recognize and name what was troubling him. In hindsight, Corey identifies his parents’ divorce, at the age of fifteen, as a starting point. During this time, Corey was an outlet for his younger brother and even his father and mother to talk about what was happening but he didn’t have an outlet for himself. Over the years, the stress increased without the benefit of having an outlet to share his feelings.
“I had nothing to complain about, nothing to feel down about, so don’t make a big deal about it, just go with it.”
Corey grew up in a locker room. He was tough and he pushed himself to ignore his mental health symptoms. He reminded himself that he was an athletic male with a roof over his head, two parents that loved him, and a girlfriend. He had “nothing to complain about.” But having billets who were able to help him talk about how he was feeling played a huge role in keeping him healthy throughout his final year of Junior hockey.
“It wasn’t until my second year of college… everything kinda fell apart at once.”
Despite the support Corey received through his final year of Junior hockey, he tried to push his mental health off to the side as he headed down to Wisconsin to play in college. It wasn’t until his second year of university, now in Minnesota, that the stress became too much to ignore. The combination of student loans, pressure of hockey, and being away from home led to nights spent staring at the ceiling, unable to fall asleep. When morning came, Corey didn’t want to get out of bed and started skipping class. He was withdrawn from his roommates and they started to notice; when Corey did go to class, he was coming back and immediately going to his room.
“Hockey had been my escape before and now I didn’t have it… that’s what really put me into that deep depression and anxiety.”
Corey’s situation continued to worsen in his third year of university. He continued to go out and party with his teammates, largely because alcohol was an effective mask for his depression. When Corey was blackout drunk, he could forget about all of the factors that weighed on his mental health. But that temporary freedom came with permanent consequences. Corey would have drunken, angry outbursts, leading friends to approach him the next morning and say ‘hey, you weren’t yourself last night, what gives?’. He would wake up the morning after a party, freaked out about what happened or might have happened the night before.
As a result of his increasingly erratic behaviour, Corey alienated most of his teammates. A few teammates with whom he was particularly close stuck by his side. They believed that Corey was out of control and wasn’t behaving this way on purpose but unfortunately, the damage was done. Hockey had been his escape and how he was afraid of having to face his teammates every day. This pushed him even deeper into a depressive state. Corey was crippled by anxiety and began to have suicidal thoughts. He was in trouble.
“I was open about [seeing a counsellor] because it was the only way I could show that I didn’t mean to hurt my friends and teammates and I was trying to change.”
Eventually, things came to a head and Corey began to see a counsellor on campus. He was open about it with his teammates not because he wanted to but because it was one of the only ways that he could show that he regretted his behaviour and was making changes. But Corey didn’t share anything with his family and only his closest friends back home were aware of what he had been going through. Ultimately, he didn’t feel he could continue at school and when Corey went home for Christmas, mid-way through his third year of university, he didn’t come back. He didn’t tell any of his teammates that he was leaving because he didn’t want to negatively impact the team. He figured it would be easier to tell them after it was done. Corey’s depression continued when he moved back to Manitoba, now with the added stressor of his long hockey career ending with a whimper.
Corey came back to Manitoba after Christmas with neither a hockey career nor an officiating career. He still had a future in officiating but he had missed his opportunity to certify in Canada, so he wouldn’t be able to get back onto the ice until September. Corey continued to talk with a counsellor but it wasn’t until he got established in Winnipeg with a good job and a social circle that he felt like things were actually improving. The opportunity to have ongoing counselling for the first time in his life helped him forgive himself for his mistakes, which would allow him to move forward. As his mental health improved, Corey found himself in a managerial position and the ability to help others made him feel like his mental health journey had a purpose. He was gaining something positive from that dark time in his life.
“I’m very fortunate to have gotten there… I want everyone else to know that you can get there as well. No matter how bad it seems, it is possible.”
Corey’s experience also helped him learn that he needed to make his mental health a priority. This became particularly important as he began talking with and helping others as they went through stressful periods in their lives. Corey knows that being the outlet for others is very rewarding but it can take a toll on your own mental health. There were days, albeit few and far between, where he would start to feel that weight on his mental health.
The Canadian Mental Health Association speaks about a mental health continuum, which ranges from “healthy” to “reacting” to “injured” to “ill”. Previously, Corey might have slid from “reacting” right to “illness”. But because of his history, Corey is able to recognize the signs and made space to take care of his own mental health, without abandoning his commitment to helping others. Corey is open about the fact that recently, when he started to feel stressors on his mental health, he started talking to a counsellor again. He is proud that it didn’t become a crisis but that he took steps to make sure he stays where he is rather than falling backwards.
“There’s just too many people who still feel that it’s not okay to feel a certain way… so we just have to keep working at being open about it.”
Corey takes the view that health, whether mental or physical is about having tools. The more tools you have, the more you might be able to help yourself and possibly others. Corey attended both Western Hockey League training camp and the BC Hockey Level 4/5 Upgrade Seminar ahead of the 2018-19 season and both events featured presentations and discussions around mental health. He believes that this is a good step, which will hopefully trickle down, and encourage people to be open and ask real, honest questions about how others are doing.
On-Side Mental Health is proud to publish and share Corey’s story in the hope that it will encourage other officials to speak out and find support when they experience challenges with their mental health.