NEEPAWA -- Hazing shouldn't happen, but it often does at hockey rinks, and Neepawa is no different.
"Blown out of proportion," said retiree Cliff Nicholson of the hazing incident that has shamed the MJHL's Neepawa Natives. "I see a lot of people in high places saying this doesn't happen, and that's a crock."
As small-town hockey fans milled around the Yellowhead Centre before Wednesday night's game against the Dauphin Kings, many said Neepawa has been unfairly tainted by the kind of hazing common in many locker-rooms.
Several people said there's a "what happens in the dressing room, stays in the dressing room" mentality in junior hockey, and Neepawa's team is singled out only because its hazing incident hit the news.
A friend told Nicholson over coffee about a high school girls volleyball team that recently made its rookies play wearing adult diapers. He said that's hazing -- perhaps not as serious as what happened to the five Neepawa hockey players, but proof initiations are common on many teams.
"A certain person had an axe to grind, and he ground it and the Neepawa Natives are paying the price," said Nicholson, who added he was not referring to any of the five victimized players.
One of those players, whose parents finally revealed Wednesday the details of the locker-room initiation, earned genuine sympathy from several Natives fans. The player recently left the team. Though his name hasn't been in the media, everyone in town knows who he is.
"Basically, he's going to be blackballed from the hockey community," said Kelly Kulbacki, a farmer who also works security at the Yellowhead Centre. "He's 15 years old, he's a fairly talented player. Where's he going to go?"
Ultimately, it might have been better for the player had the hazing been kept secret, mused Kulbacki.
But another woman, a longtime Natives fan who sat on the benches near the snack bar, said the coaches ought to have been more vigilant and the players ought to have stopped the hazing, which has no place in amateur sport.
The woman, who did not want her name used, said those kinds of initiations are a "no-no" in this day and age.
The bad publicity has all but ruined the Natives' season, tough to take in a town proud of its team and where a sticker on the door of the Co-op gas station reads "We pull for the Neepawa Natives."
At Wednesday night's game against the Dauphin Kings, several of the players involved in the hazing were on the ice, including assistant captain Shane Harrington. The crowd was thinner than normal -- one fan shrugged and said it's easy to imagine why.