Junior hockey players travel isolated, tough road. The sport’s culture is macho, but far from home, young players can be vulnerable

Junior hockey players travel isolated, tough road. The sport’s culture is macho, but far from home, young players can be vulnerable.

The Globe and Mail

OR a teen-aged hockey team, the taste of defeat is cold pizza on a darkened bus.

hockey teamEarlier Saturday, the Ottawa 67s, Canada’s top-ranked junior hockey team, spent five hours travelling from Ottawa to Barrie, with a pit stop in Belleville for spaghetti and meatballs. Now, after losing 6-3 to the Barrie Colts, they munched pizza as their bus headed south down a snow-swept highway.

At two minutes past midnight, they stopped on the ice-slicked ramp of Kitchener’s Memorial Auditorium to unload 30 huge bags of equipment and twice that number of hockey sticks. Finally, at 12:35, their bus pulled in to the local TraveLodge. “Wake-up calls at 8:30,” coach Brian Kilrea said.

Nobody groaned. Their job was two-thirds done. On Friday, the players, mostly 16 to 19 years old, played in Ottawa. Saturday was Barrie. Sunday was Kitchener. This morning, they are supposed to be back in Ottawa in class.

“I find it difficult to get up for school. I’m tired all the time,” said Nick Boynton, 17, a farmer’s son from Nobleton, Ont.

Hockey is the quintessential Canadian sport, and playing in National Hockey League is the dream of many youths like Nick.

That is why he and his 22 teammates have left home to endure numbing weekend road trips and a drop of 10 or 15 percentage points in their high-school grades. It is also why, despite their hulking size, they are so vulnerable.

This month, the sordid world of pedophilia collided with Canada’s most wholesome symbol when a junior hockey coach was sentenced in Calgary to 3years in prison for sexually abusing two young players, including a 14-year-old.

“I can see why it happened,” said Nick, who is 6 foot 2 and weighs 200 pounds. “The coach holds all the cards if the kid will do anything to make it to the NHL.”

When his nursery-school teacher once asked him to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, he crayoned a stick figure of a hockey player. “There’s nothing else I’d rather really do,” said Nick, who first strapped on skates as a toddler to whiz across the frozen pond of his dad’s cattle farm.

Of a dozen hockey players interviewed during their weekend road trip, some, including Nick, said they would tell their parents if a coach molested them.

Others expressed uncertainty. “You get scared. You might pretty much do anything to keep your dream alive,” said Steve Dumonski, 19, of Dorion, Ont. (pop. 500), near Thunder Bay.

“Especially if you come from small towns and close-knit families, you don’t know what the real world’s all about, how people really are.” He added, after a moment’s thought, that he would probably tell his mother.

Still other teens said they would use their fists.

“If a coach did that to me, I would have killed him, taken my stick to him,” said Steve Lowe, 19. When he was 10 and played PeeWee hockey in Hamilton, he added, one of his coaches was convicted of molesting a teammate. “The kid went insane. The coach got three months.”

The coach convicted this month was often alone with his players. The Ottawa 67s, in contrast, travel with many adults, including a team doctor, a video photographer and two assistant coaches.

For the past seven years, Marc Pinault, a 62-year-old Ottawa police sergeant, has also befriended the youths and talks to them about the pitfalls of drugs, speeding and alcohol abuse.

“People bring their kids to a town to play hockey from 300 or 400 miles away. They’re entrusting their kids to your organization,” said Mr. Kilrea.

Newer, younger coaches will be under scrutiny from now on, he predicted.

“For me, the only question people are going to have is: When is that old guy going to retire?”

Linda Zultek, who came to Barrie from Oakville to see her son, Matt, play left wing, said she has had conversations about sexual abuse every few years with him. “It’s a sensitive subject because it’s such a macho sport,” she said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, but you just never know.”

Elaine Bell, the mother of David Bell, who plays defence, said that molestation had never crossed her mind before this month’s case.

“It’s scary as a parent. He’s a country boy. We’re from Wiarton,” she added, mentioning the name of an Ontario town with just 2,000 people. “We’re kind of naive when it comes to some of these things. And you don’t know what goes on. They’re so close-mouthed about what goes on in the dressing room.”

Like the military or the priesthood, junior hockey has its own culture. Rookies have to do the heavy lifting, sit in the middle of the bus and let the veterans get off first. And although Mr. Kilrea has now put a stop to it, last year and the year before teammates stripped first-year players, tied their clothes in knots and made them sit for hours, naked, in the toilet compartment of the bus, the team’s second home.

On the bus, players bring their own pillows and blankets. They pass the hours watching videos such as Top Gunnd Young Guns II. The players’ huge size, the cramped bus seats and the physical intimacy engendered by daily communal showers mean they think nothing of falling asleep, entwined with one another.

Sprawled on the last seat of the bus, reserved for veteran players, David Bell patted teammate Alyn McCauley’s thigh.

“If I walked up to a buddy at school and put my hand on his thigh like this . . .” he said, breaking off, laughing and shaking his head, as Mr. McCauley, 19, punched him. “But here, if you’re not comfortable about that, you’d never get any sleep.”

In this macho atmosphere, players say it is nearly impossible for a gay teammate to come out of the closet. “There’s rumours of guys being gay, but you’d get made fun of,” David Bell said.

And how could he tell if anyone was gay? “Well, one guy tied his skates with his legs crossed,” he said.

Junior hockey is the bridge between amateur teams and the big time. There is no shortage of wide-eyed, talented youths drawn by their love of the sport and a shot at a professional career. But increasingly, junior hockey is also becoming a big business, one in which the youths aren’t just vulnerable sexually, but are also, in a sense, badly paid employees.

From ticket-sales and advertising revenues, team owners cover the basic costs of room and board for volunteer families who billet the boys. They also pay for school books and, for those who have finished high school, college tuition.

Mr. Kilrea said that schedules are designed with the school week in mind, with players missing only eight days during the 1996-97 six-month season. He said he doesn’t tolerate failing grades. Still, many players find it hard to keep up with classes. Several team members who have finished high school have postponed college indefinitely.

Troy Stonier, 19, attended only two months of Carleton University, before dropping out last November. “Sometimes a road trip started on a Wednesday. If you miss one class in university, you’re way behind,” said Mr. Stonier, winner of the team’s academic achievement award for the past two years.

In return for a seven-day work week, which includes weekday practices and two or three games on weekends, the players are paid just $40, or $35.65 after taxes. They are also eligible for unemployment insurance in the summer, although many find jobs picking tobacco or coaching children’s hockey.

“I think we should get at least $100 [a week],” said Mr. McCauley, a member of Canada’s National Junior Team, which recently won a gold medal in the world championships. Unlike most of his teammates, Mr. McCauley will probably find a slot on a NHL team, where a low salary is $250,000 and players often make $1-million or more a year.

Many youths already have agents who work for a percentage of future earnings. About 95 per cent of junior hockey players won’t make the NHL. Instead, they will likely find jobs on lesser leagues, with salaries of $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

As a big business, the bottom line in junior hockey looms large. “The only way we can make money is by a lengthy stay in the playoffs [to sell more tickets],” Mr. Kilrea said. “That’s why the playoffs are so important.”

To that end, the teen-agers are traded at will, usually with no notice. At a time when adolescents crave security, teens like Steve Lowe have played for five teams in the past three years, moving from his home in Kitchener to Sault Ste. Marie, London, Belleville, North Bay and now Ottawa.

That often creates havoc with their schooling. Steve Dumonski, for instance, arrived only last Friday. The previous day, he had been a member of the Detroit Whalers. There had been no time for farewells when the coach called Mr. Dumonski into his office and told him he had been traded to Ottawa.

“I just went home and packed my stuff and flew to Ottawa,” Mr. Dumonski said.Two hours later, he was on the ice, playing for the Ottawa 67s. His old team, he added, will take care of notifying his college and retrieving his books. He has no plans to re-enroll in an Ottawa university.

“I didn’t cry, but I had a weird feeling,” he said. “But you have to look at sport as a business. There’s so much money involved. They don’t look at you as a person. You’re just another number. If they invested in you, and you’re not working, they trade you.”

Conscious of scouts who constantly monitor the teams for prospective NHL material, the youths are increasingly playing the game with the violence of professional sports. Bone-crunching body checks, including one that left a teammate with a broken back a couple of years ago, are normal. So are fistfights that the referees allow to go on and on.

“If they keep stopping it, it gets boring,” said Maryanne Rockx, a fan who is also a hockey reporter for the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa newspaper. “It’s entertainment. They have to keep the fans happy.”

Spending time in the “sin bin,” as the penalty box is nonchalantly dubbed, carries zero stigma. “That’s the game. It’s a game of intimidation,” said Mr. Dumonski, who has broken his collarbone, a finger, and his knuckles, the latter while breaking another player’s nose.

In the past two years, Nick Boynton, for instance, has suffered 10 stitches, a slit nostril and a knocked-out tooth and has broken his nose four times.

To the uninitiated, the Ottawa 67s seem very violent. In fact the team has one of the lowest penalty rates in its league. Still, Mr. Kilrea, a no-nonsense, gravel-voiced coach whose nickname is Killer, sometimes rewards players for violence.

Once after Ben Gustavson, 18, came back, bruised and bleeding from breaking another player’s nose in what Mr. Kilrea described as a “settling of accounts,” the coach affectionately told him, “Ben, the highest compliment I can give you is, that as long as I’ll be here, you’ll be in Ottawa. I’ll never trade you.”

Last night, Ottawa beat the Kitchener Rangers 5-4. That enabled Mr. Kilrea to match the record for the most wins of any junior-hockey coach in Canada. The taste of victory was the same as the taste of defeat: cold pizza in a darkened bus on a snow-swept highway home.