LONDON, Ont. - Marie Forsell stands in the concourse of the Budweiser Gardens. She’s wearing an Edmonton Oil Kings jersey with the name of her son, Cody Corbett, on the back.
Forsell drove 13 hours in her green Jeep Wrangler from her home in Stillwater, Minnesota, to watch her son play at the Memorial Cup. The story of how they both made it here, however, cannot be measured in hours and miles.
“I kept promising him,” Forsell said, watching her boy play on the biggest stage in the Canadian Hockey League this week. “If you go to the Memorial Cup, I will be there whatever it takes.
"I’ll be there."
Cody and his older brother Ty played inner-city hockey in hockey-mad Minnesota. Forsell couldn’t afford to make multiple runs to the rink, so both the Corbett boys played on the same team. That meant Cody had to play with and against older kids.
His equipment was like everyone else’s – a hodge-podge of hand-me-downs and anything that fit. The kids in that inner-city league would use the gear until it fell apart. Once it fell apart, the boys – so desperate were they to play hockey – would find creative ways to hold it together. Whatever they lacked financially, they made up for with a love for the game, supported by a strong community bond.
“It was an eye-opener,” Cody, now 20, said this week. “Equipment would be falling apart and they’d be taping their shin pads together. They had skates from the early '90s – Tacks, Super Tacks and stuff – they did everything they could to play. I really wish those guys would have had the chance, because there were some really good skilled players on those teams.
“I wish those kids got the chance that I did.”
Like many parents, instead of doing things for herself, Forsell went without so her children could succeed. That meant foregoing indulgences such as getting her hair done to make sure the boys had money to play hockey.
Heading into his bantam year, Corbett fondly remembers the one time he was able to wear a new pair of skates. He was hoping to make his high school team the following season, so it was a big year. His dad, Eric, helped get him his prized Graf skates.
“I’ll never forget them,” said Corbett. “My dad scrounged up $500 and asked my grandparents to help out a little bit. My family did every little thing they could and I can’t thank them enough.”
Corbett made that high school team, the Stillwater Ponies, which was coached by former NHL defenceman Phil Housley who is now an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. It was under Housley’s tutelage that the Corbett flourished and caught the eye of Oil Kings general manager Randy Hansch, who was on a scouting trip in Minnesota.
Hansch told Corbett there would be an opportunity for him to play with the Oil Kings, but the 6-foot-1, 194-pound blueliner had never even heard of the WHL.
Most young players in Minnesota have their hearts set to play in the NCAA, where the popular Golden Gophers are a big draw.
It was Forsell who convinced her son to make the trek to Canada.
She had been an accomplished figure skater in Minnesota and had competed against the likes of former world and U.S. champion Jill Trenary. As a teenager she left home to train in Colorado, so she understood the opportunity that was being offered in the Western Hockey League.
“It was such a great experience,” said Forsell of her time in Vail. “Nobody understood him going to Canada where we were from. I didn’t even know about the WHL until I had done some research. I said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ You get to skate in a different country, meet different friends and play many games. They also got to train in the same building as the (Edmonton) Oilers. You can’t match that in Minnesota with any high school.
“I cried (about him leaving home), but I didn’t see any better opportunity at the time.”
Forsell made her one and only trip to Edmonton in 2011 to leave her son in the care of head coach Derek Laxdal. The former NHLer said Corbett’s arrival to the team was a familiar story with many teenagers making the jump to major junior hockey.
“He was your typical high school player – a little chunky,” said the coach. “He had that natural talent that he could get by on, but I don’t think he recognized what he had to do be a good player in the Western Hockey League.”
Corbett came to the WHL wide-eyed and having no idea what to expect. His first year was a tough learning experience moving in and out of the lineup, but he remembers his first game in Brandon against the Wheat Kings. He wasn’t supposed to be playing that night, so he was working out when he got the call he’d be a late addition to the lineup.
He was so excited, he snuck his phone into a bathroom stall and started texting his friends and family back home to let them know he’d be playing.
“I told them, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to play my first game,’” recalls Corbett. “I remember trying to sneak my phone back into my bag. I was all smiles and all the guys were giving me shin-taps – I’ll never forget walking on that ice the first time. I was just stargazing.”
Corbett has become one of the Oil Kings most dependable blueliner and his progression offensively has been impressive. This year he set the franchise record for most points by a defenceman in a season and became the team’s all-time leading scorer among blueliners.
“He’s been a big producer for our hockey club,” said Laxdal. “He’s had a really great turnaround physically and mentally and as a player – he had over 60 points this year. He’s a little bit of a late bloomer, but he’s taken a big step.”
The biggest step came in March when, after being passed over in two previous NHL drafts, Corbett signed a three-year entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche.
“It was the best day of my life,” said Corbett.
He was sworn to secrecy by his agent while the paperwork was being finalized, but once it was done the first calls were to his parents.
“It was an amazing thing for our family,” said Forsell, a videographer who specializes in underwater camerawork. “I savour that day he told me he got signed.”
There’s a good chance Corbett will one day play with Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs’ rookie sensation and a virtual lock to win the Calder Trophy next month as the league’s top freshman this season. MacKinnon is an alumnus of the Shattuck-St. Mary’s hockey program, operated out of the Minnesota prep school where students can pay up to $45,000 for tuition and board.
Same state but a long way from the lives lived by Corbett and his mom, who has an Avalanche puck in her home with the exact date and time of that phone call with her son’s big news.
“I’m so proud,” said Forsell. “He’s a good kid and he’s getting what he deserves because he’s worked so hard. I’m just glad I could come along for the ride to be here and cheer for him and watch him climb.”
And now that Corbett has found his footing in the WHL, he wants to do everything he can to help low-income families access sports equipment. He believes the high cost of equipment is one of the main deterrents for kids wanting to play hockey. He’s partnered with The Brick Sport Central, an Edmonton-based non-profit organization that provides children with new and recycled gear. In July he’ll be participating in a golf tournament to help raise funds for the program, one that’s obviously very close to his heart.
“You never know what kid out there has the talent to make it to the next level,” said Corbett. “Or has the will or the want to get better for that next level. Any kid out there who wants to play any sport, whether it’s baseball, football, whatever, they should be given an opportunity to at least try.’’
Surrounded by hockey’s best young junior players here this week, the defenceman says he often thinks of the kids he grew up playing inner-city hockey with, many of whom are still his friends. He knows, right now there are children and parents trying to make it work. Players taping up a pair of shin pads or figuring out a way to get one more game out of a pair of skates.
“Don’t stop,” is Corbett’s simple but heartfelt message. “Keep going. If you really love the game, you’ll find a way.”