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.

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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)

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”