Edmonton Oil Kings fans first heard the play-by-play voice of Corey Graham in the fall of 2010. Since then he’s called 576 regular season games, 78 playoff tilts including Western Hockey League Championships in 2012 and 2014 and nine Memorial Cup games capped off with a Memorial Cup title in 2014.
Corey was a talent on the rise. He was gaining respect from his peers and fans alike, and on March 18th, 2018 at 7:57 of the third period he called Colton Kehler’s 32nd goal of the season. It was the final goal in the Oil Kings 7-3 victory over the Calgary Hitmen. Both teams missed the playoffs.
Hockey fans haven’t heard his voice since.
I met Corey and his wife Nicole in their new home last month. Corey greeted me at the front door of their newly renovated bungalow. Freshly painted walls and three gorgeous white pillars showcased a welcoming open area for the kitchen and living room.
Instead of calling Oil Kings games, Corey has been battling to stand up. Literally.
He moved his wheelchair close to the couch and we talked about the events of the previous ten months.
Corey grew up in Victoria and in 2003 he moved to Edmonton after being accepted into the Radio and Television Arts program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). He was a sports junkie and he wanted to do play-by-play.
NAIT provided him with a foundation to start his career, but more importantly it was where he met his future wife Nicole Turenne. Little did he know how important of a role she would play in his life.
Graham graduated NAIT in 2004 and did his practicum at TEAM 1260, which is now TSN 1260. He started out as a producer and eventually worked his way up to hosting the weekday evening show, Sports Night Live, from 9 p.m. to midnight, before getting the Oil Kings play-by-play job in 2010.
He loved calling games, interacting with coaches and players and riding the bus. His career was blossoming and he and Nicole were married in 2015. Life was good.
At least the majority of it was.
In 2014 Corey started having sporadic back pain.
“I thought it was my sciatic nerve,” he said. “Doctors told me the same thing. It would flare up now and again, but I didn’t think much of it.”
Over the years the pain gradually worsened. He saw various doctors.
“A lot of them said bulging disc. They sent me for X-rays a bunch of times, but it didn’t show anything,” said Corey.
He soldiered on. The pain was getting worse, and more frequent, but despite being the voice of a WHL team, Corey is not overly talkative away from the mic. He doesn’t complain. He just thought he’d have to deal with the pain. A hockey mentality.
But during the 2017/2018 season the pain kept getting worse.
“I started to trip and stumble. At times I couldn’t lift my leg, but minutes later I would be okay and the pain would subside.” he said.
He knew something wasn’t right and he stepped out of his comfort zone.
“I had to fight to get an MRI. A few doctors were like, ‘Do you really want to go through that? ’Well, yeah. I’m like something’s not right.” said Corey.
He was put on the waiting list.
He and Nicole agreed to eat better and exercise more. They explained.
Corey: I was going to Yoga pretty regularly, I was working out and we stopped eating carbs and I was losing weight quickly, over 15 pounds, and I was thinking why didn’t I start doing this earlier?
Nicole: I had lost like one pound. I was like, you son of a bitch (laughs).
Nicole: He emceed the Women’s Fore Pandas golf tournament on Tuesday (June 12th). That was a week before he was admitted to the hospital. I was golfing and I walked off of the golf course and when I came in I didn’t even recognize him. Honestly, that was how much weight he had lost in a month’s time. When you spend every day with him, you don’t see it, but when I walked into the club house, I was like holy shit. He looked very different.
Corey: I thought it was all of the yoga I was doing! I thought it was going well (laughs).
Turns out it wasn’t. Somehow Corey mustered the energy to workout and do yoga despite the inside of his body deteriorating.
“He’d had lost quite a bit of weight in a short time,” said Nicole. “Then the next week he wasn’t eating or sleeping. He couldn’t sit, couldn’t lie down. He looked grey.”
The following Saturday (June 16th) the Grahams went to visit Nicole’s parents in Gibbons, a small town north east of Edmonton. About 20 minutes after they arrived Nicole was in the basement when both her parents came downstairs, “You have to take him to the hospital,” they said.
“I wanted to take him, but he is stubborn,” she said smiling. “We went upstairs, cornered him and said, ‘You are going to the hospital.”
He didn’t argue.
“Right before I went into the Fort Saskatchewan hospital, I was struggling badly. I felt something was definitely wrong. Honestly, I thought it was just a bad flu though,” said Corey.
When they went to admissions Corey tried to downplay it to the nurse. “I have the flu,” he said, but Nicole wasn’t having it. She explained he’d lost weight, his legs had atrophied, and he wasn’t eating or sleeping.
“When this doctor came in he said, ‘You might have the flu, but I’m more worried about the legs and your back.’ He really seemed to care,” said Corey.
The doctor told them Corey needed to get an MRI. He recommended going through the private system and paying for it instead of waiting. Corey called the Oil Kings doctor, Ed Berdusco, and he arranged it. It was the best money they ever spent.
Corey went in for an MRI the next day.
The doctor said it was the third biggest tumour he’d ever seen.
It was inside his spinal cord. It ran up from the L3 to the T9. That is half of his back, almost eight inches long.
“There is a cover that goes over your spine, they had to open that up, then went in and removed the tumour and a piece of bone. They put cow bone in to stabilize my spine,” explained Corey.
“Is the bovine bone permanent, will they put in a rod or re-insert your original bone?” I asked.
“Possibly. They say the bone has a shelf life of a year in the freezer, so technically if they decide to go back in and do it they could use it up until June,” explained Corey. “My surgeon said that is the least of your worries, that’s the last thing that we do. He said I have a better chance to heal without it.”
In March of 2018, Corey was carrying his broadcast equipment up the stairs to the press box in Red Deer. Admittedly he was in pain, but he thought he might have a herniated disc. Instead, three months later on June 20th he was admitted to the hospital after they found the massive tumour on his spine.
He was 38 years old. He and Nicole had just closed the deal on their new home in St. Albert and were going to move in August 1st. They were thinking about starting a family.
“I had the MRI and waited a few hours for the results. I sat in the waiting room until being admitted in the middle of the night. I had surgery the next day and then I had the second surgery on June 29th,” he said.
The first surgery was exploratory to get a better look at the tumour, but the second one on the 29th was the major one. It was a ten-hour procedure.
“They hook up monitors to measure the nerve function throughout the surgery because whenever they do a surgery on the spinal cord, it’s a way to monitor what happened, what’s going on,” explained Nicole.
Nicole knew every tiny detail of his surgery. Throughout our conversation, Corey would often defer to her, because she was so in tune with everything. As I sat listening to them, I was struck by how deep their bond was. They were living their wedding vows, “In sickness and in health” on a much more intense level than most couples ever have to.
“It was fairly late in the surgery, when all of sudden they just stopped. We still don’t know 100% why, but it was precautionary. The tool that they take the tumour off with is kind of like a little vacuum and because the tumour was inside Corey’s spinal cord, it is a very sensitive area.
“He was in spinal shock right away so they thought it would be best to stop. We think there is a bit of a tumour left, but we’re not one 100% sure. But at that point they wanted to make sure they didn’t sever something completely and see if he was able to respond. I think because it was an incomplete injury they think that he will recover,” said Nicole.
Will he walk again?
“From what I gather, yes. No one has said no,” Corey said. “No one has said 100% percent, but I’m in rehab and I started this brace walking program. Which is like walking with pole support because my legs aren’t strong enough to hold myself up yet. So hopefully that is the first step towards getting more movement and more weight bearing activity.”
The physical rehab is slow, painfully slow for a sports fanatic who is used to moving and traveling across western Canada with the Oil Kings. He spent last July to September at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, then at home for a few months and in January he started going to Nicole’s work at the Steadward Centre in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation at the University of Alberta. They’ve treated him exceptionally well.
“They’re awesome,” said Corey. “I started doing physio therapy at the student clinic at Corbett Hall (At the U of A), and then I worked with Lemmuel de la Cruz (an adapted physical activity consultant) and he’s shown me a lot of things to maximize my time there and also exercises to do at home.”
Corey has been in a wheelchair since the surgery and outside of the new walking brace rehab, he has had to re-train himself how to move his legs.
“My knees are really bent from being in a wheelchair so they are trying to straighten my legs. Muscles shrink sitting like this for a long time. So, it’s trying to lengthen everything out again.
“Just a lot of lying on the couch trying to stretch my knees out so that they fall with gravity. I have to continue working my upper body to get stronger, so I can hold myself up and take a few steps.”
ICU: A TOUGH PLACE
For over two hours Corey and Nicole spoke candidly about their journey thus far and an uncertain future. I am honoured they trust me to tell their story. When he greeted me at the door the wheelchair was impossible to miss. I could see the physical challenges, but the mental and emotional toll they described rocked me.
They describe being in the ICU and coming out of surgery.
Corey: That sucked.
Nicole: It is difficult because when they took him out of sedation, you have to yell at the patient. Try to keep him awake. So they’d yell at him and he was in and out (of consciousness) and they were like ‘no, stay with us.’ And I’m on the other side of the door hearing all of this and I’m like ‘what do you mean, stay with us?’ Your mind races. And then they woke him up to say hi to me and then I went home. It was great to see him. It eased my emotional turmoil before going home for the night.
Nicole: Then the next day when I got there they had just taken the tube out your throat. Man, Corey, you were in a terrible space.
Corey: The tube didn’t hurt coming out. But waking up and not being able to breathe. Having this thing in your mouth. It feels awful. It’s in your throat. You just want to puke. And I kept biting on it every time I woke up. The nurses kept telling me, “Don’t bite on that tube.”
Nicole: And then there was a lady in the ICU who coded and died and Corey had to listen to the whole thing. It was right next to him. They brought in someone as she was coding and she passed away. They were doing all of the things that you see on TV.
Me: In the bed right beside you?
Corey: Just right in the middle, there are three beds in a row and it was just in the middle. They had all of the curtains, you couldn’t see anything, but you could hear it. It is hard to explain. You feel scared, but also so sad for that family.
Nicole: You just have to listen to people be told bad news. Another man was told his cancer metastasised. You feel so sad for them, and you naturally worry about our situation.
Nicole: The good thing was we were in the neurosurgical ICU so it’s specific to neurology, spinal cord, not the regular main ICU. I think the University of Alberta Hospital is the only one in Western Canada to have this neurological specific ICU. So that was great. It is people who were specifically trained for these injuries and it’s one nurse per patient.
Graham: You had someone sitting at the end of your bed the whole time, just watching you. Making sure that you’re fine. It’s kind of awkward, but also great. Their job was to make sure that you were good, that you were okay. We are lucky to have that type of treatment. They were monitoring my…
Nicole interrupted: … Your heart rate because there was so much pressure on his spine because of the tumour and then when it released the blood starts to flow, but it can rush too fast and so he was in the ICU because he was at a high risk of having a spinal stroke.
As I sat and listened to their story I was constantly surprised by the things I’d never thought about. Lying in a bed hearing a lady take her final breaths beside you, or hearing a man be told he only has a few months to live.
That’s a lot to take.
Just imagine. You wake up and realize you can’t move. You are lying on your back in bed for a week and you can’t do a simple thing like roll on your side. You’re 38.
The major surgery was over. The real battle? Just beginning.
“At first I was really, I was okay with it,” said Corey. “I knew something wasn’t right and believed I would get better with surgery. But for like a week I was trying to stay as straight as I could, not move. Mentally it was like you’re just lying there waiting for time to pass, you’re not doing anything. But when I started rehab at the Glenrose, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. I knew that it was going to be a long time. Things went well in the beginning.
“Then I got sick. I got pneumonia. They put me on steroids and that really messed with my head. I couldn’t remember two minutes ago. It got really bad. I broke out with acne everywhere. My face puffed out. I looked like Barry Bonds (laughs); you know all of the things that you hear about. They are legit, I had a temper, and I was snapping at people.”
I’ve known Corey for 13 years. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him lose his temper, well other than the odd time he disagrees with a ref’s call when he is calling a game, but he has an extremely calm demeanour. It is hard picturing him snapping at people.
He was off the drugs in a short time. He got over the pneumonia, but then he became depressed.
“It was a good month or so where I was just not doing anything. I wasn’t going to my classes (at the Glenrose). Nothing, I would just sit in bed.
“Mentally it is such a long, long process. Little victories, I don’t get excited about them. I should, but I don’t. That made it harder, but I got through that stage. Nicole was incredibly supportive; I wouldn’t have got through it without her.”
At one point during our conversation, Nicole had to take a phone call. When she was out of the room I asked Corey what she has meant to him.
“She does everything,” he said. He paused. He took a deep breath. His voice cracked as he continued.
“She is amazing, she kept everything afloat. We were buying our house at the time. We moved while I was in the hospital. For a while there she was doing everything on my schedule, making sure I knew when and how to do things, also taking care of paperwork and every detail about me and my rehabilitation. I don’t know where I would be without her,” said Corey.
How is she doing through the whole thing?
“She’s doing well, but there are ups and downs. There are days where I feel like this is never going to end; that’s tough for her. And then days where she’s not feeling good I try to be positive, but it doesn’t last very long; because it’s hard for me to see her struggle. She’s handled it better than you could expect. I’m looking forward to going on vacation when this is all over and taking care of her.”
Nicole returned and outlined the realities of the past ten months.
“Corey’s quality of life was rapidly declining leading up to the MRI that revealed the tumour. It was indeed a relief to know something was actually wrong, and that we weren’t going crazy. But to find out it was far worse than either of us imagined? That was surreal. We don’t have kids yet, but we had always talked about that. And now we don’t know if that’s even our choice anymore.
“From the moment Dr. Berdusco called to tell Corey what the MRI revealed, everything changed. We had just bought a house, and were moving on to a new stage in our lives. Corey was admitted to the hospital immediately after the MRI, and never slept another night in the home we’d spent the better part of a decade together in. That was very hard on both of us. Then, to move into our new home and spend the first two and a half months without Corey was almost unbearable. I really don’t know how we got through that part, to be honest.
“Watching Corey go through this all has been gut-wrenching and heartbreaking, yet somewhat inspiring. I cannot stress enough how strong Corey is. This man is the most unassuming person I know. He is fiercely independent, and goes out of his way to never bother other people. So, not only has this situation significantly taken away his physical abilities, it has also taken away a lot of his independence and his “try-to-go-unnoticed” factor. That’s been really challenging for him.
“Despite all this, Corey has come to accept the situation for what it is, and works hard to jump those physical, mental and emotional hurdles. I understand another side of Corey. That side that lives out the saying, ‘You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice’.
“I can’t even begin to know what it’s like to not be able to simply roll over in bed because my legs are essentially deadweight. Or to try and move my foot and not have anything happen. Or to have someone drive me everywhere because I physically can’t. And I certainly can’t know what it’s like to miss out on a year of my dream job because of my health. I would be a wreck every day, and I doubt I would be able to do half the things Corey has been doing.
“His strength is the reason why I haven’t completely fallen apart. I can’t go to those dark places, because they just aren’t productive places to be. So, I think Corey had been strong for me and I’ve been strong for him. I guess this is what makes us such a good team.”
Corey and Nicole’s bond is noticeable throughout our conversation. They finish each other’s sentence, and despite their new reality, they still can still joke and make fun of other. Humour is a great healer.
You don’t make it through a life altering situation emotionally and mentally intact without close family and friends.
Nicole’s parents Deb and Dan Turenne have been a stabilizing force for their daughter. Helping in any way she needs, and most importantly for moral support. Just listening has been a great comfort for Nicole.
Corey’s parents, Colin and Wendy Graham, live in Victoria, so the distance makes it a bit challenging, but they too have been a blessing.
“It was hard when I called them to tell them I’m having surgery in three days. They came out when I was in the hospital and I couldn’t do anything. It was hard for me to watch them look at me and be worried. But we talk a lot. They’ve helped a lot with whatever they can. They’ve come out a couple of times, but I imagine it isn’t easy to see their son like this,” said Corey.
Corey prefers to not have attention on him, and feeling like he is the reason his parents worry has been an adjustment.
His younger sister, Colena, has been an inspiration for him. She ran the Boston Marathon last month. He won’t be running a marathon any time soon, but knowing how much work she put in to qualify inspires him to work equally as hard to get back on his feet.
Corey’s warehouse colleagues from the WHL off-season summers of 2015-2018, rallied for their injured co-worker and moved the Grahams into their new home in August while Corey was still in the hospital.
Their close friends Blair and Heather Holworsky were a good support system to maintain some semblance of normalcy though a major surgery and rehab like this. Nicole’s brother Jesse, wife Andrea and their boys Colton and Aiden add a lot of joy. Corey is determined to go skating and play hockey with his nephews again.
Nicole’s cousin James was a pillar of strength. He knew about staying sane in a crisis.
In a cruel twist of fate James’ brother Greg passed away June 30th, 2012, almost six years to the day that Corey went in for his major surgery, at the U of A Hospital just one floor down from Corey.
“Greg grew up with Cystic Fibrosis and he was rejecting his double lung transplant. He was in a coma and had a blood clot that resulted in a massive bilateral stroke and because he was in this coma they couldn’t tell right away. What we experienced that day was beyond traumatic,” said Nicole.
“When Corey had pneumonia, and then he got a blood clot it scared the heck out of me. James was there for me the entire time. He was also beside me during Corey’s second surgery. He understood the entire situation, the eerie similarity and those conversations with him….I don’t know if I’d have made it through without him,” said Nicole.
Many former and current Oil Kings players and staff reached out. Former head coach, and current Calgary Hitmen bench boss Steve Hamilton was a huge motivator for Corey.
“Steve was unbelievable,” said Corey. “He actually came to the hospital before each surgery to deliver a ‘pre-game talk.’ It really helped me. He said ‘no bad days,’ basically saying that these surgeons, every day is their Super Bowl, every day is their big day, and they don’t have bad days. They can’t afford it. He was really helpful in getting me to think positively.”
There is no clear timeline for Corey’s recovery. When you break a bone or tear a ligament you will get a tentative timeline of four to six months.
Corey doesn’t have one.
“People say your nerves regenerate one millimetre a day,” said Corey. “That’s obviously not a lot. But I’ve noticed since I’ve been home different muscles engaging more, and now I’m able to complete new exercises. I thought I would be out (of the wheelchair) by now. I thought I would be farther along, so that has been hard to take. I’ve had to re-adjust my mindset.”
The Oil Kings had a spectacular season, reaching the third round of the WHL playoffs, but Corey didn’t pay too much attention. He was focused on recovery.
“I kept track, but it’s hard,” said Corey. The pain of not being able to call games was apparent in his voice.
“I didn’t go to a game. They kept telling me to come to a game, but I just couldn’t do it. I talk to the trainers a lot. I’ve talked to the coach a couple of times, but I don’t want to be the guy that’s there and just kind of hanging around like, ‘hey remember me’.
“An injured player doesn’t want to be around the team. They’ve done everything they can to invite me and make me feel welcome and I appreciate it. I just kind of kept my distance and also Andrew (Peard, who filled in for him as the play-by-play voice) has a job to do too. I didn’t want to make it awkward for him.”
Corey plans to return to play-by-play once he is healthy. Returning to the press box in Edmonton, Red Deer and all the other 20 WHL cities is a main motivator. His connection to the WHL runs deep.
“The Oil Kings have this poster, I don’t know if they still do, but it illustrated you and your goal, and then your path to reach it. There is this beautiful sunny team and all is great, but then it depicts reality. There is a crater here, there’s water here. So instead of having this beautiful path, that’s never how it is. You have to go through all of these challenges and so that’s how I’m looking at my situation.”
Before he returns to calling games, he needs to be walking.
This week he was at the Glenrose with his brace rehabilitation. Standing. Building the strength to hold himself up. Grueling. Exhausting. Frustrating. Corey is ready for the battle.
Nicole is beside him for every small step. She can push him, but also support.
“I can only imagine what it would be like to be unable to walk. And those hard times are difficult, but using the progression as a motivation to keep going and working harder is really, really, really important. The science is showing that so long as you keep going, your chances will improve,” she said.
It is a difficult balance right now. Nicole works full time, and they are still settling into their new home. When I walked out of their lovely bungalow, I noticed a freshly painted feature wall in their back entrance. Gold sparkled. “It radiates positivity,” said Nicole
They try not to think “what if.” What if Corey can’t walk? Instead they are focused solely on him standing up.
“Rehab is my regular season and playoffs. Walking will be my Memorial Cup,” said Corey.
**If you would like to send Corey a note you can reach him at [email protected]**