MATT SUDERMAN 1983-2016

It’s never easy to lose someone.

It’s even harder to lose someone close unexpectedly. You’re not prepared for the emotional toll that follows the days, months and even years after one’s death. But a death is much more then mourning. It becomes a time to reflect and celebrate a life once lived to its fullest.

When the unexpected news of Matt Suderman’s passing arrived on my plate this past weekend, I was stunned as many of you were. That news is still bothering me which is only natural. When I started writing, Matt was one of first players I became good friends with. While I only caught the end of his career, I could tell that he was a special guy; especially by the way people spoke about him.

At 6’3 and 235 pounds, Suderman was a giant, albeit a very friendly one that most can testify too. A big boy coming out of the prairies with a solid junior career with the Saskatoon Blades under his belt, Suds was never known for his goal scoring prowess or point totals. No, he was that big body you wanted in front of the net, to block shots and to know you’re safe on the ice whenever he was around. Everyone needed a guy like him in the locker room.

Being a likable character and knowing his role on the ice lead to being a very late draft pick of the Atlanta Thrashers in the 7th round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. Yes, that may be a late round pick but being drafted is being drafted and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. Sudsy played his entire career bouncing around the minors. That’s not unusual for most. But being able to get paid to play a game you love can sometimes be a reminder to one self that you’re one of the lucky few.

matt_sudermanSuderman was a fan favourite almost everywhere he went. Whether he was dropping the gloves against Mario Joly and Erick Lizon with the Arizona Sundogs, blocking shots for the Dundee Stars or taking the lead with the Hull Stingrays, Suderman was a man who commanded respect. And that respect was given to him a million times over.  In Hull we saw him fight for what was right and for what he believed in.

Matt Suderman was also diabetic.

I find this must be mentioned for all of young athletes out there struggling with the terrible disease or those who have just been diagnosed and thinking they have give up the sports they love. While there famous hockey stars that played and continue to play through it (Bobby Clarke and Max Domi come to mind), it’s important to know that even the tough guys and guys who you have more in common with then you think you know, also have to fight through something. Sudsy never let the illness define him. That’s one of the main reasons he’ll always be a close friend to me.

Yes, we must mourn our loss. Another great human being has left this Earth way too young. But let’s honour and celebrate our friend’s life and career with laughter, smiles and fond memories.

I leave with you a message I received one morning from Sudsy.

“Ashley, I swear to god if you use the words “semi-pro” again, I’ll slap you in the arm. Not the face, but the arm. Stings more.” 

I haven’t used that word since.

#RIPSudsy. We’ll miss you.

 

The Beauty: Carson Shields and his Dark Side of Hockey

(Photo: ourheroesofmanitoba.ca)
(Photo: ourheroesofmanitoba.ca)

When my article on the “Dark Side of Hockey” first hit the powerful waves of the internet, Carson Shields was one of the first (if not, the first) players to reach out to me. His story has been very well told in his province of Manitoba and maybe there’s been a little coverage out west but in my neck of the woods of Eastern Canada, I knew that nobody had heard this tale. Right away I wanted to make him one of the first parts in my “Dark Side of Hockey” series. He sent me links upon links of different articles that tell his horrid tale of hazing. I couldn’t even manage to get through watching a video interview, that’s how bad it stung me. This needs to be read by every single person in sports.

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As a young kid growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Carson Shields was fascinated by the Canadian winter past-time of hockey. Just like any other young boy in the country his age he became enamoured with it and one day dreamed he’d be able to take it in at the highest level;  the NHL. Seeing something make their boy so happy prodded Shields’ parents to sign him up. He never looked back.

His early days in hockey saw him skate the ice with some of today’s powerhouses. Jonathan Toews and Frazer McLaren were both on his AA Assiniboine Park Rangers squad. By the time Shields reached his teens, his big frame had given him a bit of an enforcer label. Not in a bad way though. He was always the one who would stick up and be there for his teammates. A player that every guy would love to have on his line. The type that every coach would love to have on his team because he actually wanted to learn as much as he could about the game. His skills on the ice were good but not good enough for major junior. His junior career made him make eight different teams in four different provinces between junior A, B, and even C.

The dream of playing professional hockey was the fuel that kept him burning. He traveled so much his Dad (who earned Rookie of the Year honours in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League one  season)  gave him the nickname “Suitcase”. No matter, he was going to make it.

10721241_10152366711407666_949101796_nIn his grade 10 year, Shields decided to try out for his high school team. Kelvin High School, out of Winnipeg, Manitoba saw Shields with growing leadership abilities. Along with his drive to play, he earned himself a spot on a team that was mostly made up of 11 and 12th graders.

As he progessed into a new year of junior hockey, Shields found himself as a rookie on a one team. The veterans introduced Shields to the glorious taste of alcohol, something that Shields would become close with in time. Part of the rookie experience on this team was to endure the dreaded hazing ritual then finally be considered one of the boys. Almost like a college fraternity, Shields and a few other rookies swallowed their pride and headed off with the vets to a house that was used for the team one weekend.

No coaches, no parents, nobody but young teenagers were at this so called party. Shields knew that because of his age and his playing abilities, it didn’t sit well with most of the vets on the team. After all, he was a 17 year old. That right there instilled fear to the veterans on the team. Shields could one day steal their job. As the new guy this was going to be their way of getting back at him.

To start off what I call “Hell Night”, the rookies were forced to strip naked in the street and were led to an area where they found six glasses of clear substances staring back at them. Five of them held alcohol, each a different kind. One was water. Once you found the water, you had beat the challenge. Seems simple enough right?

Well, these weren’t shot glasses. Shields went through glasses of vodka, white rum, Sambuca, and two others without finding water. Looking at the sixth one as his saviour, he swigged it down. Wasn’t water.

Gin.

Of course, with that much alcohol downed in your system in such a short period of time, the rookies were intoxicated to the point of no return. Remember, they’re still all naked at this point. What they were forced to do next is something I don’t even want to type, so I’ll copy and paste it from an interview Shields did with the Globe and Mail. The rookies were forced to do the “elephant walk”.

“They were forced to do an “elephant walk” about the rooms: each rookie holding onto the testicles of the hunched-over rookie walking ahead of him”.

Once satisfied that the rookies had passed that test, they were fed even more alcohol. The veterans then shoved them all into a room upstairs where most of them were beginning to vomit. Not on the floor, but on each other. They were then forced to “bong” cans of beer. By this point Shields had blacked out. The last thing he remembers hearing were the words, “Alright!! You can bring the girls up from downstairs now!!”

10718005_10152366724507666_131540894_nDoes he remember the night? He doesn’t have too. The veterans managed to whip out their cell phones and take pictures of the rookies in different humiliating poses. Some urinated on the group while documenting it. Who knows what those girls did to them. It’s these events that give Shields nightmares to this very day. Thankfully this was before the inventions of Facebook and Twitter.

After learning about what had happened to him, Shields contemplated packing it in and ending it all. How he continue with his life after being ultimately humiliated by people he thought had his back? To stuff the memories down, he became cocky and arrogant. His play on the ice dropped and he began using his fists more. Three more years of junior saw him ice 118 games (MMJHL, MJHL, SIJHL, Playoffs, Dudley Hewitt Cup) and capture 417 PIMS; that’s 27 fighting majors.

However, it wasn’t just the play on the ice that changed Shields. His whole demeanor changed. “After the hazing, I became completely out of control. Drugs, booze, women…ANY form of escapism. Anything I could do so I wouldn’t feel like that scared little boy laying on the bathroom floor in puke and piss, having pictures taken of me.” His partying and drinking escalated to where it was a daily occurrence. Thoughts of suicide danced around in his head. He sank himself into a deep depression.

Enrolling himself into the University of Winnipeg didn’t help his cause either. Nobody knew who he was, his hockey reputation didn’t proceed him. He started hanging with a rough crowd and turned to cocaine. During one night out with his drug dealer, he experienced an event that most people in the world never will. The cold steel of a 9mm on the temple of his head.

In one bar fight he got himself into (there was more than a few), saw him break a guy’s orbital bone and fracture his nose. It was beginning to catch up with him. “I was picked up for an Assault Causing Bodily Harm charge,” Shields recalls a much more frightening time which became some what of a wake up call. “I managed to get a great lawyer who got me a conditional sentence which sent me to an anger management program. As long as I completed the program there would be no criminal record.”

This is where Shields life started to take a turn for the better. Through the anger management program, Shields was able to peel back the layers and identify where his anger came from and understand it. The root evidently came from the night of hazing. It hasn’t been all sunshine and roses since but with counseling Shields has been able to come to peace with what happened to him and realize it wasn’t his fault. “I’ve come to terms with what happened to me. I’ve also come to terms with where it took me.”

10719490_10152366724597666_1841560769_nHis love for hockey unraveled but he began to coach. After getting close with some of the young guys on the team, Shields decided he didn’t want to see them go through what he did. So he came public with his story. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I did. I knew that I had to come out with my story and show that it’s important to talk about this dark side of the game.” Upon doing that, he set up an email account to converse with players around the world who were going through or have gone through something similar.

Shields took advantage of his acceptance to University as well. He graduated with a degree in Conflict Resolution Studies, a program that he obviously holds dear to his heart. “We have to continue to change the culture (of hockey).” He’s right. Without stories like these, people will continue to put players in the game on a pedestal. Without stories like these, we’ll continue to think that players are happy-go-lucky people who have it all when in reality, that’s not the case. Shields also goes around and speaks to local schools about his tale, mental health and the horribleness of hazing.

Shields story of courage and strength saw him be nominated and accepted as a “Hero of Manitoba” award winner for 2014. “Our Heroes of Manitoba” showcase the provinces every day people doing extraordinary things. No doubt, Shields was thought of during nomination. “I am very grateful and humbled. I had no idea so many people, teammates and players had nominated me. I didn’t come out with my story to win an award. But hey, if it keeps the conversation going and I can be used as an example of “what not to be”, it is all worth it.

“All I hope is that the junior community continues to address, be proactive and support players who are struggling in all aspects of the game, not just hazing.” He’s absolutely right. Too much is focused on the playing abilities of the players and not about how the game affects them physically and mentally. The shift in thinking can only help to create stronger players in the long run. “I think the OHL has made a great decision in establishing this new program dealing with the mental health aspect of the game.”

 

So what’s up for Carson Shields this hockey season? Not much. “I decided to take a step back from the game this year. I played, I scouted and I coached…feels good to just be a fan,” He’s not gone from the game entirely however. “I still keep the door wide open for any player to reach out. I am responsible to that.” He’s in the process of expanding his journal that he had during his hockey days and turning into a memoir entitled “The Beauty”.

Carson Shields is a person who, in the short time we’ve chatted and gotten to know each other, I look up to as a symbol of strength and courage. Take the time to follow him on twitter and send him a tweet of respect. You can find him @CarsonShields23.

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Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey and like the page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/marchhockey and send me a message! If you know any player who’d be willing to add their story to the “Dark Side of Hockey” series, send them my way! 

Read Todd McIlrath’s unbelievable story of coming from the brink of suicide here: “Sticks, Chicks and Dirty Mitts”.

(Photo: Carson Shields is last on the top row. Jonathan Toews is second row, second from the left)
(Photo: Carson Shields is last on the top row. Jonathan Toews is second row, second from the left)

Sticks, Chicks and Dirty Mitts: Todd McIlrath and his Dark Side of Hockey

Todd McIlrath (Photo: www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)
Todd McIlrath (Photo: http://www.facebook.com/GulbransonPhoto)

I had originally set out to make a part 2 of my article “The Dark Side of Hockey: What people never think of” and delve into the sections with a little more detail. However yesterday, I got a message to my facebook page that immediately required action and have it brought to the forefront of my attention.

When I originally wrote that article I was fed up with hearing how my friends in different teams throughout the world were being treated and how rampant mental illness is in sports with nobody doing a damn thing. I figured at the very least I could write about it and try to bring some awareness to society. I remember thinking that if I could help just one person it would all be worth it.

It was worth it.

Todd McIIrath reached out to me on the afternoon of September 24, 2014 with a lengthy message. Here’s a brief excerpt:

“I stumbled upon your original article about a week after I had been planning to take my own life. I felt as if I was battling something so unique to MY situation until I read the first half of your article. Your article saved my life. I am literally driving from Wisconsin to my hometown in Michigan to admit myself into a facility in an attempt to rebuild. Thank you.”

I could not just leave that message sit and not respond. I responded right away and found out that Todd was in the passenger seat of a car at that very moment with another 5 hours to go before he was admitting himself into a facility in Eastern Michigan. I’m a fairly easy person to get along with so we naturally started a conversation on the topic that fate joined us together with. I then asked the burning question if he’d want to tell his story. With actual enthusiasm he obliged and had the same mentality I did: “If it helps just one person Ash, then it was worth it.” Hey, I had all night. I was all ears.

By the time McIlrath had hit bantam, he knew he was something special in the hockey world. Having played with names such as Erik Condra and Matt Taromina, McIIrath was drafted to the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in the second round. Weighing his options, he decided to sign an offer with the United States National Team Development Program and stay a bit closer to home.

He was off to a heck of a start for his junior career. As with all athletes however, he was faced with adversity and well, it wasn’t really his strong suit. Tacking onto his drinking and smoking marijuana that started in Grade 8, McIlrath had started using almost every day. Getting caught cheating on an exam saw him lose his scholarship with the USNTDP as the coaching staff no longer had confidence in him to crack the lineup. However, he could return to the team the next season but had to go to high school in his home town and commute to the practices and games. To cope with not only the loss of time but to gain an edge, he turned to the drugs of Ritalin and Ephedrine. This was during the height of ephedrine awareness. Athletes were dying, and I was buying yellow jackets by the bottle on a weekly basis.” In the midst of

McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)
McIlrath with Indiana. (Photo: facebook)

this he had managed to commit himself to Notre Dame University and the Fighting Irish hockey team. Towards the end of the school year, a plagiarism incident put the stop to that entirely. He lost the confidence of not only his coaches but his teammates and most importantly, himself. “At this point I was the problem child. I began to alienate myself from my teammates.

The following summer was a blur built around girls, booze and drugs. When he arrived at camp that very fall, the team had brought in two new forwards. They clearly had no use for him. “The writing was on the wall. After getting healty’d (scratched) the first six games of the year,” McIlrath recalls. “I packed my car and went home.”

By now his agent was already in the middle of a three way deal that was trying to send him back to the OHL albeit with the Sarnia Sting. His parents turned him off of that idea as they wanted him to play NCAA so he managed to land himself in the USHL with the Indiana Ice. The season started off great and seemed like all of McIlrath’s problems were behind him until he popped his shoulder out in the middle of November. McIlrath moved home to have surgery and was sent off with a bucket full of pills and self-described “post-rookie season swagger”.  For the first time in his life he was a normal kid, at home, with no responsibilities. Naturally, the partying became out of control. “I can remember playing drinking games with the option to take a shot, or take a pill; on a school night.” Vicodin and booze saw his new found confidence sky rocket. It also gave him an addiction to prescription medication.

The following season he was billeted with a family that was fairly well off and had a full bar set up in their basement. He was still addicted to pain meds but had upgraded to oxy-contin from having built up a tolerance to Vicodin. ‘Vicodin isn’t cutting it anymore’ was enough of an explanation for my doctor.” By Christmas he was leading the league in points but to his discredit (or credit depending on how you look at it), he only iced a handful of games sober. “My game day routine involved popping an 80mg tab of oxy before my pregame nap, and snorting half of one before I left for the rink.”

Of course his luck got even worse. His first game back from Christmas break saw him tear his ACL. “To this day, I swear it happened because of what I put my body through on a nightly basis.” It was at this point where he began to struggle with how people saw him.

McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)
McIlrath with Bowling Green. (Photo: Christine Towles.)

He donned a narcissistic attitude that would make him lash out at people if they didn’t treat him like a God. He’d avoid people that would try to keep him humble and fed off of the rest that told him how great he was. That summer he committed to Bowling Green State University but instead of going, he decided to stay back one more year in junior to be a big fish in a small pond.

“When I think about BGSU (Bowling Green State University) my brain immediately associates it with coke, girls, alcohol and hockey. In that order.” McIlrath had enjoyed a very positive and acceptable first year at Bowling State. By the end of it, he took a job bouncing at a local bar and that’s when things inevitably turned sour once again. “I was always a yes man, so when someone asked me if I wanted a line (of cocaine), I was in deep.” In fact, he played his entire sophomore year on cocaine and you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers. Fate came twisting again when his coach’s friend ran into him at the bar while McIlrath was drunk. The coach brought it up at a pre-season meeting and once again he was back in the dog house. He was jerked around every which way; in and out of the line-up, demoted to defence, encouraged to give up for good among other things. By December of his junior year he didn’t care and just focused on playing for fun. After more partying behaviour, the coached took the matter into his hands and gassed him. It was over. He played his final year and graduated with a major in Psychology. “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me.”

That was it. Hockey was over.

He spent the next three months in an alcoholic haze and the next two years depressed without a hope in life. A friend however told him about the AAHL; the All-American Hockey League. “This league was absolute hell, but I was playing again. This was verbatim the league you spoke of in your article. Five fights a game, not sure if we were getting paid, three guys in a one bedroom apartment; gong show.” The use of his hockey talent gave him a bit of hope. He managed to catch the eye of an organization in the East Coast Hockey League. Through all of the booze, drugs, highs and lows, McIlrath felt like he was being given a second chance. Determined to not blow it, he obliged when the team offered to fly him out on game day.

“And I kid you not, I tore my ACL again in my third shift!”

A constant string of bad decisions combined with even worse luck started to eat at him. As his depression worsened, it’s here where McIlrath first entertained the idea of taking his life. He managed to get a coaching gig with an independent team but was fired when the owner found out he was a coke head. Defeated he turned back to the AAHL and won a championship with the Battle Creek Revolution and signed on for next year

Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.
Winning the AAHL championship with the Battle Creek Revolution.

with the Fort Wayne Komets. The bad luck didn’t stop as a drama with his twitter account made the team let him go and that was the end of that.

Depression came back in full force and after a month of feeling sorry for himself, he managed to call up a friend who got him a coaching gig with a junior B team. Things started to seem normal at a steady pace again. The team placed third in nationals and by the end of the year, he had found himself quite the lady that was smitten with him. He turned her into his wife.

However after a few problems in the relationship arose, McIlrath reached his all-time low. He quit coaching and succumbed to the blackness of his depression. He managed to stay alcohol and drug free for an entire year before these problems existed. Determined to save his marriage, he invested and opened up a hockey school. In its second year of existence, it was all too much. “Everything on the surface was silky smooth, but as cliché as it sounds, I was just another duck on the pond.”  McIlrath knew that his sober living was limited.  “The money started pouring in, and it was flying up my nose faster than I could pay the bills.” He managed to save enough money to pay his employees and the bills on time when they arrive but that was it. “Every spare penny went toward living a rock stars lifestyle when I was barely getting by.

Things continued to be rocky. On Fourth of July weekend of this year, McIlrath blacked out a party and hit rock bottom in his depression. “My plan at this point was to get through the summer, finish my hockey school, have a night out with the boys and take my own life.

“So I decide to take a victory lap. I visit my family, and closest friends over the past few weeks and prepare my exit. I had my spot picked out, and even now I have a rope hidden under a pile of clothes in my car. I decided a jump from 80′ might not kill me so I decided to hang myself from the same height.”

“I woke up this past Monday dripping in sweat. This was going to be the day. But after reading your article for the 50th time it is my goal to be an example of strength rather than becoming a statistic. Especially since I’m going to be a father.”

 

10153131_233704133502040_225210655_nI immediately got McIlrath in touch with Corey Bricknell, a former hockey player who started an organization with other former players called “Fighting the Truth”. FTT is an organization built to help players, whether former or still playing, deal with mental illness and the trials and tribulations of professional hockey. They had reached out to me after reading my article as well and I’m proud to say that I’ve joined their organization in helping create awareness.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about. I applaud Todd McIlrath and think so highly of him for his decision to get help. As I’m writing this, he is in a treatment center in Michigan surrounded by his no doubt loving family and there is not one damn thing he should be ashamed of either. I hope you’re doing well right now Todd, I’m thinking about you tonight. Thank you for telling your story. I know you’ve helped someone.

Depression isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of being strong for too long. It’s time to end the stigma.

#YouAreNotAlone

Feel free to follow me on twitter: @MarchHockey or like the facebook page: www.facebook.com/marchhockey as I continue to add stories to this growing series dedicated to creating awareness of mental illness in the hockey community.

For more information on Fighting The Truth, head to www.fightingthetruth.com or like their facebook page at www.facebook.com/FightingTheTruth

Read about Carson Shields and his Dark Side here: The Beauty, Carson Shields and the Dark Side of JUNIOR Hockey

The response to “The Dark Side of Hockey”

kordicI did not expect the response I got from the first part of this series. Nor did I think I would even be turning that article into a “series”. At the time of writing this, “The dark side of hockey: What people never think of” has garnered over 100,000 views from all over the world. I’ve sifted through numerous comments, emails, tweets, and facebook messages in the time since and it’s just astounding at how real a problem this is, not just for hockey players but athletes in general.

I’ve had quite a few current and ex players reach out to me as well. In time, they’re going to share their own personal stories with me and I’ll pick out bits and pieces and put it into articles in the coming days and weeks. They’ll remain anonymous but if they want their name out there, that’s okay too. It’s important that younger players and other semi-professional players not only in North America but in Europe as well know that they are not alone in dealing with these trials and tribulations of living out of a suitcase.

Being a hockey player is a huge undertaking that most people don’t realize and it starts at a very young age. Even if you’re lucky enough to make it to the NHL or even the AHL, there’s no amount of money you can pay someone for your sanity. Mental illness is a real thing. It’s not going to go away. It’s time to end the stigma.

I’m not just going to focus on our younger junior and major junior players as I’ve said before. The help is slowly coming out for them. It’s our professionals who are in their twenties or thirties that don’t know which way to turn when hockey is all they’ve ever known. Sure their teammates are like brothers but some don’t feel comfortable opening up about things they deal with on the road, with the team, in a different country, not getting paid, changing teams, dealing with messed up contracts etc.

Ryan Kujawinski. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
Ryan Kujawinski. (Photo by Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Anyway, I just wanted to touch base a little bit on the responses I’ve been getting. I’ve read everything single comment, emails, message I’ve been sent and I can’t thank you enough for your support. Let’s try and get mainstream media behind this.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey or through the facebook page www.facebook.com/MarchHockey and drop me a line!

The Dark Side of Hockey: what people never think of

li-boogaard-rypien-belakI don’t know why I decided to take on this topic. I’ve spent the better part of a couple weeks thinking about it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been researching mental illness a whole lot or maybe it’s because Theo Fleury’s biography is on my nightstand staring at me, begging to be read one more time. It could be the recent suicide of Slovakian player Miroslav Hlinka. Either way, I think it’s an important piece to look at.

Hockey is a tough sport. It’s one of the toughest sports (arguably the toughest) out there physically. Everyone can see that. Nobody ever thinks of how the sport can affect your brain. I’m not just talking about the fights where getting popped in the head a few times a night can obviously do damage. I’m talking about the hundreds of ups and downs one goes through their career. Not only on them but on their families as well.

Not everything in life is sunshine and rainbows especially in this sport. Don’t get me wrong, there has been progress made. Gone are the days of partying hard with the boys, breaking curfew and showing up to the ice still hammered. Instead we’ve replaced it for the most part with rigorous training schedules, perfect diets, and the always on the go lifestyle.

From the moment we see our kids lace up their skates for the first time, we expect the NHL dream. Some parents more than others jump into that dream with both feet and become an increasingly volatile whirlwind of mental anguish. I’ve seen parents get mad at their kids for not scoring more, not skating fast enough, not playing the body, telling them they’ll never make it and more. It’s bad enough that these kids will get reprimanded from their coaches but to take it from someone who supposedly loves them is hard on the ol’ self esteem.

(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Let’s say your kid shrugs off your words and hey, low and behold he actually has some talent. He gets drafted by a Major Junior team and the offers from NCAA teams in the United States come flooding in. All would be well and good if the stress of not knowing which route to take while dealing with full days of school, possibly a part time job and social life were easy. Don’t forget about the millions of people who will chime in to offer their advice. What do you do? Yes, there are counselors now who are ready, willing and able to help decide which path to take but you know what’s still sitting in the back of little Johnny Hockey’s mind eating at him? The fact that you told him he could never make it.

He’s not going to stand for that though! He’s going to prove you wrong! He decides to take the major junior route and play four solid years while hoping he trains hard enough, eats the right foods and does everything by the book to get onto an NHL team. His dilemma? Well, what happens if he doesn’t and you were right. That thought eats at him every single second of every hour. It starts to interfere with his play, so much so that Johnny Hockey has decided to turn himself into a little enforcer and start fighting in games to get his anger out.

Between games he starts to withdraw and isolate himself. Teammates notice but chalk it up to him just “being Johnny” or over exhaustion. Coaches notice and just shrug it off, telling him to just suck it up and get out there.

So now we’ve got a skillful, angry and depressed enforcer of a player. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were still the 80s/90s. The age of the enforcer is quickly dying in today’s game. Players are being taught more to use their skill and take on more of a role. How does this effect little Johnny Hockey? Well, the first round of the draft was promising when he first started. The rounds are coming and going. He’s finally taken in the last round to….it doesn’t even matter what team, it was the last round.

Of course, getting drafted to the NHL alone no matter what round is a great achievement. However not to our little Johnny. He feels that he’s now a failure and will never see the big time. Starts withdrawing more. Maybe he takes up drinking; maybe cocaine. He moves back to his hometown now that his junior career is over with nothing to fall back on. Spends his days in bed.

(photo: Helen Brabon)
(photo: Helen Brabon)

The phone rings. It’s a semi pro team willing to give him a shot. Happy days! Gladly accepting, little Johnny packs up his gear and heads out to his new team.

In middle of nowhere, Europe.

Okay, so it’s not THAT bad. He’s playing hockey for a living!

Yeah, that’s what you think.

The team promised him they were a professional organization. The team also promised him a bi-weekly wage. It’s been a month and he has still to see any of it. The team promised him a fully furnished apartment. It’s a table, stove, fridge and a mattress on the floor; going to have to fill in the rest yourself. His roommate however is another fellow import. At least he’ll have somebody to communicate in his own language with. Good luck with anybody else.

Little Johnny shakes his head but sucks it up. He’s a professional hockey player and damn it, at least he has that going for him.

The team promised him that they would travel by plane. 18 hour train rides later seem to contradict that fact. Well, at least he can rest on his off day. Good luck as the coach has scheduled a practice and oh look at that, you got a game that night.

Frustrated, little Johnny crosschecks the wrong European in the first period of his second professional game. Gloves get dropped and Mr. European catches Johnny with a left hook, sending Johnny to the ground head first knocking him out cold. Concussed, he skates off the ice and gets sent to the team doctor. Doctor thinks he’s alright to play even though he’s slurring his words and seeing double. Coach yells at him to take the next shift because after all they need this win. The coach’s job is on the line.

8171341152_a0fc218c57Johnny deals with this year in and year out. Plays everywhere from mainland Europe, to Midwest USA, to the UK, and finally ending in Quebec, Canada. He racks up the penalty minutes on his fight card not really caring about his point total because, what’s the point? It’s not like he’s going to make it back to the show. His wife, fed up with the constant travelling and seeing her husband get beaten to a bloody pulp every night, threatens divorce. Nobody remembers the talent he once possessed. Night in and night out he’s beaten and bruised up all the while thinking, “what am I even doing this for?”

Finally Johnny realizes he’s getting too old for this. He’s only 33 but his body feels like that of a 70 year old. He’s in the locker room one night thinking about hanging them up. He’s caught with sudden anxiety. What is he going to do after this?! He never went to college or never held a job for more than a few months. Hockey is all he knows; where does he turn?

This is where my story ends and my thinking began. Where do the minor, professional, semi-professional hockey players go when the game is gone? Yes, plenty turn to coaching, opening up hockey schools and whatnot but what if you’re not one of the lucky ones to do so? It’s a daunting and scary thought. You’ve lived out of a suitcase for 10-15 years of your life and you’ve most likely not saved very much. Where do you turn?

There’s not many resources there for the players when they leave the game. A lot don’t know what to do with themselves as it’s all they’ve ever known. It’s almost like a soldier in the military getting back to civilian life.

Now what about all of the medical injuries and diagnoses you’ve captured over the years? Most leagues don’t have a pension plan or medical coverage when you’re done with the game. It’s a very important piece to understanding the life of a semi-pro athlete and what they deal with once the glory fades.

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If I had the money, I would start up a foundation where players could go to help them with the transition of coming back into the real world so to speak. Just as there are some players who can’t handle not making it (see Terry Trafford), there’s some who can’t deal with never playing again. They need to be caught before something turns ugly.

Mental illness is a big topic in the life of a hockey player. Once things start to slow down and they take a step back to look at their life, that’s when everything comes spiralling out of control. I’ve read it in way too many player biographies. We’re getting better with the NHL’s Hockey Talks campaign but it needs to more than once a year. It’s important to know that it’s okay to ask for help.

I know this article was a long one. I just want people to think of the other story of the coin with our hockey heroes. They’re people just like us and some of them even live pay cheque to pay cheque just like you. They’re not as different as you think.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @MarchHockey or like the Facebook page and drop me a line! http://www.facebook.com/marchhockey

READ: “The response to The Dark Side of Hockey”

The current state of officiating in the NZIHL

(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)
(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)

Given last weekend’s drama filled antics between the Canterbury Red Devils and Southern Stampede which led to a player suspension, I assumed the quality of referring for the two game series between the West Auckland Admirals and the Red Devils would be tight to maintain order and keep control. With the beauty of technology, I was able to catch the full stream of the game without being have asleep at two in the morning. (I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong but it’s so awesome to have the NZIHL at my fingertips during the day.)

However, my thoughts definitely got the wrong side of things. Maybe it’s just because I’m seasoned to watching professional hockey leagues (but even they have their own officials that are lacking at times), but what I saw were many blown calls that were turned around and made up after noticing the call they missed before. Easily a lack of consistency. Nobody got the better end of the stick either; the officiating was poor for both teams.

Throwing out game misconducts like they were going out of style in an attempt to control the game. That will only make things more hyped up. Well you say, how does one control the game then? By making smart judgement calls when they’re warranted.

I realize that these officials have to be certified in order to boss the game. My question is, are they having their memory refreshed during the offseason with continuing yearly courses? I understand New Zealand is fairly new to having a national league but this would do wonders for the growth of the sport. Referring clinics in the off season could even attract new people to the sport. You could import a couple of seasoned referees to help out and showcase their resumes.

Before you start to send me hate mail, this isn’t a knock on the refs. It’s more of an eye opening catch to make sure the league keeps its standards high to attract the best quality players. I understand and can not be more grateful for the sacrifice they make to pick up officiating and give up their spare time. I’ve also only watched the past two games in Christchurch, so I haven’t a clue if it’s like this in the rest of the country.

I’ve seen some leagues go down and fold due to poor officiating. I don’t want this to happen to the NZIHL.

Stampede’s Schneider sent to hospital as Canterbury defend TKRT Trophy

(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)
(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)

A weekend series ended on a bit of a sour note as the Canterbury Red Devils successfully defended the Toa Kauhunga Riri Tio Trophy. A close battle with the Southern Stampede on Saturday preceded a rough and almost old time hockey feel on Sunday night.

The first matchup saw solid offence coming from Brett Speirs, Evan Zych and Vladimir Kutny. Hard shots that sailed to the back of the net early on allowed goaltender Justin Findlay to secure a comfortable win and promote the winning momentum into Sunday night’s tangle.

Unfortunately the story of the weekend wasn’t about defending the TKRT trophy, the winning ways of the red and black or the relentlessness of the Stampede. No, in fact the chatter afterwards signaled down onto something we’re all pretty familiar with in hockey: fisticuffs.

Towards the end of the second period, tempers were flaring as a tangle and scrum jumped in front of the net. We’ve seen it a million times. Whistle gets called, players start chirping, punches get thrown. Usually, referees are there in time to break it up before things start to boil over. Didn’t happen this time. Matthew Schneider of the Stampede seemed to get a pop in the mouth from a punch by what seems to be a Hayden Argyle fist. Schneider unfortunately has his back to the camera and all we get to see is the whiplash of his head slinging back and then he drops to the ice. Flat on his stomach, arms outstretched.

Not moving.

(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)
(Photo: Suzanne Teesdale)

I’m used to the North American style of hockey and I’m very familiar with the “fight for no reason” style of the LNAH. From what I saw on the replay of the stream was nothing more than a hockey play gone wrong. Argyle gave Schneider a pop to antagonize him and when Schneider fell to the ice, he fell chin first. I’m pretty positive that Argyle didn’t intend to hurt him, at least not that extent and I can put money on him feeling pretty bad about it afterwards. These plays happen all the time over here and unfortunately some of the end up like the case of Schneider. The fall to the ice can sometimes cause a lot more damage than the fist to the face.

Argyle received a game misconduct (can’t blame them) but the official call was a “check to the head”. Hmmm. I would’ve called it roughing myself but I guess that’s why I’m not in black and white stripes. I realize that Hayden Argyle has the reputation of being the most penalized player in the league with the rap sheet to prove it. I also know that Matthew Schneider is one of stand outs on the Southern Stampede squad. Being it this early in the season, I chalk this up to nothing other than a hockey play gone terribly wrong.

Nobody likes to see a player get hurt. Schneider was taken to hospital and underwent medical observations for a concussion. The Stampede did tweet out today and Schneids is shaken up but okay and will be back on the ice next week.

When the dust settled on Sunday night, the Canterbury Red Devils managed to come away with another 4-2 win in front of a capacity crowd at their hometown Alpine Ice Arena. If there’s one tale to come out of the weekend’s series, it’s that hockey players don’t forget. Expect a bounty on Hayden Argyle’s head for the rest of the season.