In 2014-15 Derek Sheppard was part of York’s newest class of recruits. Coming out of the QMJHL where he was a self-described ‘punching bag’ for a season and a half, he joined a York team with a full junior hockey career under his belt. When it came to playing hockey, Sheppard knew what he was doing. But when it came to tying a tie, it was a different story.
It’s a good thing Sheppard ran into Mark Cross at York that year, or else he might still have the same tie-knots from his Gatineau days. Sheppard will tell you his pristine tie-knots are thanks to his former teammate, but he’ll also tell you he wouldn’t have a Queen’s Cup championship either if it weren’t for Cross.
“We said after we won that OUA championship that we wouldn’t have been able to do it without [Mark Cross] involved. The seniors that left us the year before won us the Queen’s Cup in my opinion”, says Sheppard.
To fully understand York’s 2017 Queen’s Cup championship, you have to go all the way back to 2011-12. That was the year the OUA was introduced to Cross, a young recruit out of Strasbourg, Saskatchewan, fresh off a full three years with the Estevan Bruins. He entered the league that year alongside another key recruit in future Lions captain Tyler McGee. A perennial powerhouse of days past, the Lions were still searching to get back to the Queen’s Cup form they had last in 2004. Over the next few seasons, the Lions hovered around mediocrity. Enter Sheppard, who joined the program for the 2014-15 season.
“Mark was one of the first guys to come up, shake my hand, and introduce himself. Right away you could tell he had a presence in the room”, says Sheppard. “I had the privilege of living with Mark and his girlfriend (Molly) for my first two years at York. He took me in when I was a commuter and offered me a spot in his house”.
That season also marked the rookie campaigns for Trevor Petersen, Colton Vannucci, Greg Milner, and Reid Jackman among others who would turn out to be very instrumental in York’s 2017 title run. Sheppard recalls finding out not just how great of a person Cross was, but how he set the standard for being a student-athlete for all the rookies that season.
“Not only was he a great hockey player and a great leader, he was also an academic. He really took care of his studies, but was also the life of the party that everyone wanted to be hanging around. Every facet of the university life, Mark lived it to the fullest and he wanted everybody to be a part of it”.
After a summer which brought in a promising cast of recruits, the Lions were not a good team that year. Finishing last in the OUA West after scoring the fewest times of any team in the division, it was clear there needed to be a change in the program to give them the boost they needed. That change came in the summer when a new coaching staff including assistants Jesse Messier, Andreas Karlsson, Russ Herrington, and the leader of the group, Chris Dennis entered the picture.
What happened the next season was one of the most impressive single season turnaround performances of any OUA team in decades. The Lions went from being the basement dwellers of the OUA West to winning the regular season division title with an immaculate 16-7-5 record.
“We embraced the fact that nobody believed we should be the leaders of the division, but we were. Everyone thought that we were just getting lucky and squeaking by teams. We were a team that was very close and we didn’t have anyone that was bigger than the team. We were able to buy into Chris Dennis’ system that he brought over and we worked our bags off”, says Sheppard of the ’15-16 season.
That year would stand as Cross’ final tour of duty in the OUA, as it was his fifth year of eligibility. An established leader underneath previous coach Jim Wells, Cross had something to prove again with a new coaching staff. Herrington still recalls how quickly it became apparent that Cross would be an integral part of a new era of Lions hockey.
“We came in and he was already an established leader on the team, he had a letter on his chest”, says Herrington. “But you could already tell that leader wasn’t the proper adjective for Mark. He was plain and simple the heart and soul of the hockey club”.
The 2015-16 season will forever stand as one of the most important seasons in the history of the York Lions men’s hockey program. There was no championship glory that year, it would have to wait one more season. But the ’15-16 campaign proved to everybody that the York Lions had truly developed and accepted the culture that was needed for them to win. Any player on the team will tell you that even though Cross wasn’t on the roster for the 2017 Queen’s Cup championship, his influence on the program far extended his five seasons.
“The coaching staff realized that Mark Cross was the epitome of what we were trying to accomplish with the program”, says Herrington. “He was the guy that if we were at practice and were teetering below the standard we wanted, we made sure that whatever drill we did next Mark went first. He would immediately establish the level of intensity, pace, and execution that was at the standard we were pushing for them to accept as the bare minimum. That’s how he fit in”.
In that ’15-16 season, Cross would take home team MVP honours. On a team which featured future OUA best defenceman and MVP in Sheppard, a 17 goal-scorer in Petersen, a 10 goal-scorer in Milner, one of the league’s best goalies in Chris Perugini, and one of the OUA’s best playmakers in Justin Larson, Cross, who was ninth on the team in scoring, was deemed to be the team’s most valuable player.
For those who knew him, it was no surprise at all to see Cross behind the bench with the Humboldt Broncos.
“I knew he’d be a head coach one day”, says Sheppard. “He understood the game and what it meant to be a hockey player and he definitely instilled a lot of values on me too”.
As the news of Friday’s horrible events trickled out to the hockey world, head coach of the Lethbridge Pronghorns, Spiros Anastas, was in an odd situation. Over 8000km away from the scene of the accident, Anastas, like all of us, had a heavy heart. Serving his duty as coach of the Estonian national U18 team halfway across the world, the fallout of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy hit home for the Pronghorns too. Logan Boulet was a nephew of assistant coach Kevin Higo.
But then on Sunday afternoon, everything came to a dreadful climax. It was on this day that Anastas found out that long-time athlete, student, and friend Brock Hirsche had passed away after his second battle with cancer.
“Brock had this really unique ability to make you believe that you were his favourite”, says Anastas. “I believed in the way that he treated me that I was the best coach he ever had. I know there was 25 other guys in that room that all believed that they were his best friend”.
Those 25 other guys had the pleasure of sharing three seasons together with Hirsche on the Lethbridge Pronghorns from 2013-2016. But Hirsche’s impact on the game of hockey and those he played with predates his time with Lethbridge. A captain at basically every level he played, Hirsche was a 2nd round pick in the WHL Bantam Draft in 2007 by the Prince George Cougars. He went on to play 171 games with the organization in his career, and served as their captain in 2012-13.
Over at Lethbridge, national champions of 1994, they were struggling to find success in an increasingly deep Canada West Conference. Hirsche joined the program in time for the 2013-14 season. That was an ugly year for the Pronghorns, who finished last in the conference for the second straight year. Not all that dissimilar to the situation at York, it was clear that a change was in order. That offseason, a new face in Spiros Anastas was introduced as the man to lead the program forward from behind the bench.
“[Brock] was one of the first guys I met when I came to Lethbridge for an interview. He and two of the guys picked me up from the airport and took me out for lunch”, remembers Anastas. “He’s a big reason I took the job. I asked a couple guys including him point blank ‘Can you win here?’. He was just so full of optimism and hope and positivity. When he spoke you could tell it was genuine. I thought, ‘Wow, if this is the kind of person I can have with this program, then coupled with my work ethic and determination I think we can have something'”.
It takes a special kind of leader to continue to be optimistic through the toughest of times, but that wasn’t a problem for Hirsche. He believed in everybody he played with, and continued to show faith in his new coach during a period of drastic change for the Pronghorns program. As a result, he would become the first captain appointed by Anastas ahead of the 2015-16 season.
“Weirdly enough, our five wins my first year was an improvement from the year or two before. But it obviously wasn’t good enough for me. Through the year I saw that [Brock] never gave up and always believed and worked extremely hard. But the biggest thing is that I cut like 18 guys after that first year. A lot of those guys were friends and close to Brock. Guys who are really saddened by the news this week and will probably be at his service. Some guys that I kept around the program were at first very hesitant and didn’t trust me or were mad at me that I got rid of some of their friends. But Brock from day one was on board. He just saw things in a different way and saw things for what they were. He never got blinded by distractions. He just said it had to be done and I believe in you”.
It’s been a slow, but steady process for the Pronghorns ever since. The program has yet to muscle their way into the playoffs since Anastas has taken the reigns, but this is a team which is marginally better than it was when Hirsche showed up as a freshman.
Hirsche knew in his final days that he was living on borrowed time. After defeating testicular cancer in 2016, he began his second battle with cancer in November of 2017 and was recently told he had three to six months to live. Unfortunately his time was cut shorter than anticipated, but he didn’t let that stop him from continuing to be a positive influence on the program and community who loved him, and he loved right back.
“The guy finds out he has three to six months to live, and the first thing he does is start a scholarship fund to leave a legacy”, says Anastas. “It’s going to somebody who displays leadership, a guy who was a leader in the WHL, a guy who works to raise awareness for men’s health issues or other causes. That’s [Brock]. He took really shitty news and made it into something great”.
One of Anastas’ final interactions with Hirsche tells you everything you need to know about the kind of friend he was.
“When I found out [Brock] was day-to-day when I got to Estonia, I texted him and told him how much it killed me that I couldn’t be there with him. From the sounds of it he was barely able to respond to texts, but he replied to me that he was so happy for me and so happy I was chasing my dreams. Again, he made me feel how much he believed in me as a coach”.
They say that the best players are the ones who can make their teammates better when they’re on the ice. If that’s true, then Cross and Hirsche are both truly MVPs. Not just most valuable players, but people too. They didn’t just live their lives to the fullest, they made sure they improved the quality of life for everybody else they were surrounded by too.
At the end of the day, Cross and Hirsche aren’t all that different. Both players who entered teams with a lot to prove, but left their programs in a better state from when they showed up. It wasn’t just by their play, but by how they set a standard and showed everybody around them what it meant to not just be a winner, but what being a student-athlete was all about.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget what the role of a captain or assistant captain really means on a university hockey team. It’s not all about hockey anymore. You’re going to be relied on as somebody who can lead the way on the ice, but also exemplify the qualities that make a great student athlete. There’s no doubt, Cross and Hirsche were going to excel in any career path they chose themselves. But they both chose to give something back to all of us.
Cross spent his final days influencing and mentoring a generation of boys who were in the same position he was years ago. Just like he did for his teammates at York, he’d have given anything to see the Humboldt Broncos succeed and produce great leaders just like he was.
Hirsche believed in people, and their ability to accomplish anything they want. The Pronghorns have one of their most challenging seasons upcoming as hosts of the next national championship. But no matter how this season pans out, they’ll always have the belief of their biggest fan, and captain for life.
Two players who impacted the game in a way no numbers or stats could ever show. Two leaders whose legacy will far extend their lifespan. Two young men, gone too soon. But never soon forgotten.
For all of us in the university hockey community, thanks boys. We’re all better for having known your stories.
If you’d like to donate to Mark Cross and the Humboldt Broncos GoFundMe page, you can do so here.
For those looking to support the Brock Hirsche memorial fund, you can make donations here.