Playing for keeps

After just over 400 games, Fremantle Cockburn Hockey Club stalwart Darryl McCormick has just about seen it all. He has gone through three home ground changes, six head coaches and one local premiership, but nothing more impactful than the evolution in the discussion surrounding mental health.

“Growing up there was next to no talk about mental health. No one was aware of its importance,” he explains.

McCormick now runs the team’s culture and expectation sessions. Each season hammers home the importance of playing in a safe and healthy environment.

This environment has evolved since the time McCormick first walked through the club doors back in 2005. Over that time he has seen the shift in the way these sessions are held and what is discussed.

McCormick playing in his early days at the club. Photo supplied: Fremantle HC.

“When I first came to Fremantle back in 2005, there were no means of communication surrounding the issue. No one was willing to talk about it. We all knew that it was a thing, but that was as far as it would go.”

McCormick describes times of hardship during training that would leak into games. Players unleashing on each other in pure rage, or to assert dominance.

He says: “It was mayhem. Lads were turning on each other due to the build-up of stress and anger in their lives outside of hockey.”

The 2005 season was a write-off. The team didn’t make the finals and fingers were being pointed in the search for reasons. The bitterness and accusations were still in full flight when, one evening at a pre-season training session in 2006, McCormick took it upon himself to stand up and say something.

“It was obvious to me that someone had to address it. We were shocking in the 2005 season. It was more than hockey. Friendships were fractured and lost. We were a bunch of individuals.

“I had had enough. I took it upon myself to stand up and address the group.”

Not knowing what the response would be, McCormick stood his ground and made his statement, a statement that would become the defining reason behind their success in 2006. Shortly after this statement, McCormick was named captain, an achievement that he still now looks back on with a fierce amount of pride.

That season was Fremantle’s most dominant to date. McCormick went on to lead his team to their first premiership since 1952. McCormick puts this success down to the change in culture that occurred leading into that season in 2006. The team focus shifted from not just success on the field but off it too.

McCormick facilitated group discussions about life outside of hockey, galvanising the group and repairing the friendships that were lost in the season prior. McCormick also helped change the way young players were treated in the club.

McCormick and team celebrated goal in an elimination final back in 2016 with three debutants. Photo supplied: Darryl McCormick.

“The ways in which the younger boys were brought up through the system was another world different to how it is now and I purely put that down to the evolution of the stigma surrounding mental health,” he explains.

“The ways in which we were giving feedback to the younger kids at the time was harsh and brutally honest. We would ask ourselves why we were losing these kids halfway through a season. Now, looking back, it is obvious”.

During this time, McCormick invested more time into producing fresh faces for the club, nurturing the talent that was coming through the doors. One of these young guns, Harry Keymer, shared his experience with McCormick, describing him as a father figure of the club.

“He really is someone that you can go and talk to about anything. I valued my time with him as a junior coming up through the ranks,” Keymer says.

Keymer walked into the club in 2018. An 18-year-old from Albany, Keymer set his sights on playing in Fremantle’s Premier 1 grade alongside McCormick. In Keymer’s first year, he went to McCormick’s culture sessions. Blown away by the professionalism of the club, Keymer felt as though the club was in a really strong space heading into the 2018 season.

Harry Keymer playing in his 5th season at the club. Photo: Luke Lawson.

“You could just tell, the boys were all mates, everyone knew everyone. It just felt right, like a family,” he says.

That season the club was experienced its first mental health crisis situation, with several players speaking up about facing hardships. Keymer recalls a time when the whole group was told that something had happened to one player, who was therefore taking some personal leave. Later, one autumn afternoon in the 2019 pre-season, that player returned and addressed the squad.

Keymer says, “I didn’t really know him that well, but I was blown away by his courage. He would only have been a year or so older than me. This action really drove home to me that this club was where I wanted to be, where I felt safe to talk.”

This example of courage sparked conversations within the playing group with other players feeling comfortable to challenge the stigma around mental health. McCormick took this as an opportunity to open doors for players who hadn’t previously spoken openly before.

McCormick says: “This wasn’t an issue in hockey. It was an issue surrounding all men from all walks of life. Being able to alter the way that we, as a club, valued mental health meant the absolute world to me, as I knew the benefits that would come with being open with one another.”

McCormick (Right) with long-time teammate Josh White playing for Fremantle Cockburn. Photo: Luke Lawson.

These benefits are still being felt today, with many more fresh faces walking into the club to one day play for Fremantle’s top men’s team. McCormick is still one of the driving forces behind keeping Fremantle a club that embraces hard discussions, allowing their players to escape from everyday life outside of hockey.

“I know for a fact that the majority of the boys use hockey as an escape, whether they have announced that themselves or not is irrelevant because it’s true. We play because we love the sport.”

Keymer agrees that the love of the sport and pure mateship that Fremantle embodies are what keep him with the club. Enthusuastic about it’s future he says: He says: “Seeing the team we currently have makes me believe that we can go all the way this year. We have a healthy relationship with each other on and off the pitch.

“I can honestly say that the blokes in this team are going to be lifelong friends of mine.”

As McCormick enters his season number 22 at Fremantle, he hopes to win one more flag before the curtains draw on his career. McCormick sees a great amount of potential in the current playing group, drawing comparisons to the team that he led to a premiership back in 2006.

While winning would mean a lot to him, he says: “If I am able to look back at my career knowing that I contributed to the club that I love in a way that didn’t involve talent on the pitch, I will feel like I have done my part.”

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