The Price of your Entertainment is Their Bodies

Two heart wrenching tales from players, one still active and another retired, show the stark contrast of what is taking place on the other side of hockey; the dark side.

The first was a story that pulled at your heart strings and something that the average public could relate to; the untimely death of a friend or loved one. Dan Carcillo lost his best friend and former teammate Steve Montador back in January. He described the pain and emotional turmoil he went through in the days following Monty’s fate. Monty’s death made him take a long, hard look at how and why the life of a professional hockey player can spiral out of control and so quickly into the world of depression. From reading his words it seems like there is many players in the National Hockey League that are suffering in silence.

The second tale was about the life of an enforcer after the knuckles and blood have been thrown. Mike Peluso opened up his life and described how he has inherited a seizure disorder after suffering through years of concussions from punches to the head. Like in my first “Dark Side of Hockey”, Peluso describes how he would be misdiagnosed – most likely on purpose – to get him back out onto the ice to finish game after game. He never mentioned anything about his mental health but I can imagine it has taken a beating at some point in his days following his retirement.

“When the game is over, the enforcer’s suffering has only just begun.” – Mike Peluso, The Globe and Mail, April 24th, 2015

You could take that quote and apply it to almost every player once the game is gone. It can apply to every player in any league around the globe. However, let’s face it.

You can leave the game but the game never leaves you.

There are many different scenarios to why a player leaves the game. The worst ones are the ones that are out of your control. An injury, family circumstances, a death, team folding. Many things can cause early retirement. When things are out of control though, you’re usually not prepared for it and that’s where things can get frightening in your head. The thoughts that swirl through your mind, like anybody else, can haunt you. Thoughts of wondering if you could have did things differently to still be playing. The anger of wondering why these things happened to you can be soul crushing. All your dreams taken away in an instant.

montador

This is where we need something in place to help before things get out of our hands because this is a major problem. Be it a group of former players and sports psychologists teamed together to battle the depression facing newly retired players. The military has an action called debriefing whenever soldiers return from their tour overseas. In it they meet with at least a psychologist to talk about everything they witnessed over there and to make sure things are okay up there. It may be quite the comparison to make but why can’t teams have something like when a player retires? It’s just an idea and just a step.

The thing is though, we can talk until we’re blue in the face and have teams and leagues implement procedures for retiring players and have systems in place for former players to reach to but that’s just it.

We can’t do anything to help unless THEY want it.

We can’t help unless the players talk. More players need to come out and just like anybody else, show that it’s okay to have depression. It’s okay to have anxiety. You’re not any less of a man or a player for having it. The more players that come out, the more younger players can go “Okay, he went through what I’m going through. He’s like me.” One of the biggest misconceptions is that players think they’re the only ones going through this when it’s likely a teammate is going through the exact same thing.

Rising star Terry Trafford took his young life during a battle with mental illness.
Rising star Terry Trafford took his young life during a battle with mental illness.

You’d be shocked at the amount of former players that messaged me from all over the world when I first wrote “The Dark Side of Hockey”. NHLers, and former NHLers explained the things they went through over the course of their career and the ramifications since they’ve packed up their skates. Mental illness is just the tip of the iceberg to what these guys face now. Problems including financial, drug abuse, living arrangements, international predicaments involving countries are just some and you know what? There’s no one there to help them with anything once the jersey is hung up for good.

You might be saying to yourself, “What the hell do you care Ashley, you’re just some woman who’s never played pro hockey.” Well, I may not have played pro hockey. Hell, I haven’t been on the ice in 10 years but my love for the game hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s grown. I now have many friends that are involved in pro hockey in some aspect and they deserve the help they need from the teams and leagues they busted their ass for years for. I don’t claim to be an expert on sports psychology but I know a problem when I see one.

The other reason is to bring awareness. The more people that read and realize the need for something to be done will only put pressure on the powers that be. Once the NHL does something it will trickle down to the other leagues but why should it take the NHL to do something? Because they have the money and power? No, screw that. The time is now and it doesn’t matter who starts it first. Hell, if the LNAH wanted to start something for players and be the lead then so be it. People will be helped.

Professional athletes are just like you and me. They’re people too. For years they give us entertainment in exchange for the price they pay of their bodies. Their entertainment might actually help some people with their mental health. Enough is enough, it’s time to give back.

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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)

Commentary on the death of Terry Trafford

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As shocking as it was to hear of police finally finding Terry Trafford’s body; I think all of us were hoping that the outcome of this dilemma would not be on the tragic. However when reports came out of Terry’s girlfriend saying that he had threatened to commit suicide, I knew right then that this story would not have a peaceful ending.

While at the time of writing this suicide has not been confirmed but obviously rather speculated, I am drawing the conclusion that Trafford did indeed take his own life. As he was in the public eye as a hockey player with the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit, his story is getting a little more attention. The fact is, this happens every day.

 
There are two things I’d like to talk about in this article. The first being depression. The teenage and early 20 years of one’s life is an internal struggle. More so now than ever before. There is an overwhelming societal desire to be the best in one’s life. While that is great to look at on paper and to think the fact is, not everybody is going to be the best. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay.

Society in this day and age throws things at you from every corner. You’re not good enough unless you have a college or university education. You have to be married and have kids by this age. You have to know exactly what you’re doing in life. If you don’t follow these things, you’re looked at as useless. It’s a broad spectrum that most of the media puts out there and after a while, it start to become a normal way to think.

Well, it’s not normal. It’s OKAY to not have a college degree, it’s OKAY if you’re not married, it’s OKAY if you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, it’s OKAY if you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, WHATEVER. Everyone has the right to feel normal without prejudice and live life at whatever pace you feel comfortable.

When it comes to hockey (and this is the second point of this article), we tend to put players on a pedestal. We tend to think “Oh wow, look at how great of a player he is, look at how much muscle he has, he’s a millionaire, he’s probably raking in all the women”, when in reality we don’t know the demons they’re going through personally. (See: Bob Probert.) And that’s more or less society’s fault. I don’t know Terry Trafford’s real story but from reports I’ve read, he seemed to have taken his life because he was afraid of never making the NHL. That’s sad.

We want our hockey players to be manmade machines. Hockey players are some of the fittest and stronger individuals on the planet. Are they mentally? Not by a long shot. They have a lot to live up to and in this day and age at a lot younger age than their predecessors. Team combines are just weeks and months of rigorous testing. That has to put a lot on the stress of a player mentally. (And maybe even physically, case in point Richard Peverley but that’s a whole other topic).

Not only on the ice but off the ice as well. Do you go to major junior? Do you go to school or turn pro? What school should I pick? What workouts should I do? 25 years ago, players didn’t have to worry about this. (Mind you it was a whole different time).

This has pretty much turned into a rant but I’m tired of watching the way we put hockey players (and athletes in general) on such a high pedestal and think everything must be peachy with them because they are living the dream and we aren’t. I’ll bet you good money that there players out there who would PAY to be the little man once again.

We need to throw more into mental health initiates. It’s getting better but it’s not over by a long shot. Not until society as a whole changes its outlook.