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)
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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