Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Out of the haze? Hockey rite of passage declining, but still a reality

Manitoba hockey official hopes Neepawa controversy gets it out of junior dressing rooms

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Kim Davis was 22 years old, in his third year as a professional hockey player, when a group of veteran teammates jumped him, tied him down and shaved him from neck to toe. Everywhere.

 

They smeared Vaseline in his hair and all over his body. They drew with markers on his skin, all over.

Would you expect that Davis would remember -- more than 30 years later -- that day of hazing?

Like it was yesterday.

"I was so f ing mad at those guys," fumes the 53-year-old Davis, who for the last decade has served as commissioner of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. "If it was to help build team bonding, the exact opposite happened. I hated it. And I hated them for doing it.

"I didn't take crap on the ice, and I sure wasn't going to take crap from them," adds Davis, a former junior star with the Western Hockey League's Flin Flon Bombers who went on to play 36 NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

"But they made it up in their mind that they were going to do something and they did."

It was a typical story of the late '70s and early '80s. A new player arrived and the grizzled veterans determined the initiation process. There were no rules. There was no appeal or place to hide.

Junior hockey was far worse. Sordid tales of initiations that involved pails, hockey pucks, strings and penises were commonplace. In the 21st century, hockey officials unanimously agree such incidents have declined in both overall numbers and severity of degradation.

But if the recent case of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League's Neepawa Natives -- where one 15-year-old player was allegedly made to tie a water bottle rack around his scrotum and walk around the room to the amusement of older teammates -- proves anything, it's that even the most reprehensible and secret-society-like hockey traditions die hard.

In fact, some would argue the Natives' much-publicized hazing, at least for now, proves something more unsettling: that the victims of abusive behaviour in many ways face more adversity and punishment -- especially for coming forward to report such incidents -- than the perpetrators.

For example, league officials advised the 15-year-old player in question to leave the team pending the investigation, which began in early October. He has missed seven games so far, and what will happen with the rest of his hockey season is uncertain at the moment. Sixteen of his teammates now face suspensions; the team captain got five games, the most severe sentence meted out.

And instead of apologizing to the player, team officials initially made the victim apologize to his teammates for discussing the hazing outside the locker-room.

An RCMP investigation into the incident is ongoing, and on Friday the league announced it will reopen its probe, headed by a special hand-picked investigator, after it was determined some players had recanted their initial testimony to Davis.

The teenager is still without a team, and his parents plan to ask Hockey Manitoba to find the promising junior another place to play. The Natives have said he'll soon be on a new team.

"I think he's probably been one of the loneliest kids in the world for the last three weeks," says Winnipeg-based sports psychologist Cal Botterill. "He deserves some real support because... this kid is courageous to come forward and say, 'This is way out of hand.' "

The most pressing issue now, Botterill says, is for Manitoba hockey officials to intervene and find a hockey home for the player. Why?

"It's like any kind of abuse issue," he says.

"It's kept underground, because a lot of time if you go forward, as this poor kid has, you're now the victim again. It's a real sad problem.

"I hope they're trying to get him some help because, boy, oh boy, in the past it's been hard to work through and survive. I'm sure there's players whose careers have been ruined, who never get back to being comfortable again."

Indeed, the incident has sparked no shortage of debate. Were the suspensions long enough, especially when it came to Natives head coach and general manager Bryant Perrier?

"I'm surprised that the coach is basically getting off scot-free (two games)," says one longtime National Hockey League source. "That's the head of the snake. That's who runs the machine."

And what of the commonly held complaint that hockey people shouldn't investigate their own when it comes to matters that involve violence or abuse, given they are products of the same culture that has for years tacitly allowed hazing/initiations with the credo: What happens in the room stays in the room?

After all, the root of such rituals is woven into the DNA of not just sports, but the military, said Botterill.

"Any time you have an event like this happening, whether it's jocks or soldiers, you know it's just going to escalate," he said.

"You're playing with fire. It may start off as a funny thing but... as we discovered in Neepawa, it gets out of hand sometimes.

"It doesn't die easy," Botterill concluded. "It's almost biological history, especially with males."

Retired NHL player Shane Hnidy, who was born and raised in Neepawa, says hazing, especially at the junior level, was widely prevalent during his days in the WHL.

"Why does it go on? Because it's been there," says Hnidy, who hung up his skates last summer after winning a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins.

"I don't think it's about camaraderie. In my view, it's like, 'Pay your dues. I went through it, now I'm a veteran, so you go through it.' It's a vicious cycle, right? Whether it's right or wrong, it's the macho, manly way."

Hnidy didn't think much about hazing rituals, or initiations, for or against. It was just part of the culture. But that was long before he became a 35-year-old father of young children.

"In junior, obviously, you're more immature (in your) thinking," he says.

Winnipeg Jets assistant GM and director of hockey operations Craig Heisinger, who spent almost a decade in junior hockey as an equipment manager in the 1980s, believes the instances of hazing have decreased considerably in recent years.

But, he adds, "It's like death and taxes. It never goes away."

Of course, it's wrong, says Heisinger, whose 18-year-old son is a member of the MJHL's Winnipeg South Blues. In fact, hazing by all accounts is non-existent in professional hockey, where rookies instead are made to host dinners and pick up the tab.

"There's other ways to bond and team-build," he notes.

But in a junior hockey environment teeming with teenagers and testosterone, the incidents of hazing seem to persist. In 2005, the Ontario Hockey League's Windsor Spitfires fired head coach Moe Mantha after it was learned some rookies were forced to strip naked and crammed into the bathroom on the team bus.

In a related incident, Spitfires veteran Steve Downie knocked out four teeth of rookie teammate Akim Aliu during a subsequent altercation during practice. Aliu, just 16 at the time, had refused to take part in the hazing.

Downie was suspended for five games and later traded. Aliu was suspended for one game and traded. The team was fined a total of $35,000.

Downie is now a member of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. Aliu is property of the Winnipeg Jets and currently plays for the Colorado Eagles of the East Coast Hockey League.

"How rare is it (hazing)?" says Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba. "It's probably a little bit more common than we're willing to admit. I think everyone is certainly aware of the consequences. If it does happen, it doesn't surface. But there needs to be an ongoing education where there's bullying involved... or you're getting people to do things that are not acceptable.

"(But) we're doing a lot better job than 30 years ago, when I came through the system, when that type of activity was more or less an accepted practice."

Yet Woods contends that even a zero-tolerance policy, fully enforced, won't necessarily make hazing extinct.

"You can control it. You can try to reduce it," he reasons.

"Whether it will be eliminated? I don't want to minimize it, but... drinking and driving, smoking, any type of bad behaviour, it's very difficult to eliminate. It's the responsibility of the organization to try and control and reduce it and educate everyone of the distasteful nature (of hazing). But there's always going to be an ongoing challenge. Hopefully, we're going in the right direction."

Can the Natives incident at least serve as a wake-up call for junior and minor hockey?

"I think it's a very strong message that's been sent," Woods says. "There's a lot of very positive things about the sport. When something negative happens, you have to deal with it."

Davis, meanwhile, said the league already has guidelines against hazing practices considered "humiliating, degrading and demeaning."

"We try through teams and players to talk about respect, respect for your teammates and respect for yourself," says the MJHL commissioner. "Somehow there's a disconnect where players don't understand it means this type of activity, too. If we can overcome that, and have that thinking altered, we'd go a ways toward getting rid of it."

Personally, Davis said he didn't suffer any long-term psychological scarring from his hazing over 30 years ago. Other than anger. But the experience has made him acutely sensitive to any hazing or initiation practices.

Ultimately, however, coaches and veteran players need to protect, not intimidate, younger teammates who are often at the mercy of their elders, he says.

"I don't like this one bit, and that's mild language of how I really feel," he says.

"But I can't, nor can the coach of any team, be with their players 24 hours a day. That's not to pass the buck, but there's only so much we can do, quite honestly. Having said that, we have to do more than we've done as an organization.

"I hope the message gets out that we haven't hidden anything. We've been very upfront," Davis adds. "For many years, we never heard anything about anything. And from what I'm gathering anecdotally, these things go on, not just in Manitoba and not just in hockey.

"The fact that the public at large is talking about it is a good thing. And certainly whatever we uncover is going to be painful, but it's going to help move the issue forward to getting rid of it."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 A6

History

Updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 7:43 AM CDT: adds links, adds colour photo

8:03 AM: amends headline, deck

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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