The message, Manitoba Junior Hockey League commissioner Kim Davis told the media, was “hazing is not acceptable.”
And yet it continues to exist, sometimes with dire consequences, in sports teams, bands, fraternity and sorority houses. An American survey taken nearly 15 years ago – before social media turned bullying into a rising social and political issue – found as many college- and university-level students, one in five, had been subjected to unacceptable, possibly-illegal hazings as had experienced what they considered a positive initiation.
The most notorious recent example of hazing occurred this fall in the NFL, when Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito, a 6-foot-3, 319-pound guard, launched a profane, racist and even threatening attack on young teammate Jonathan Martin. The appalling example of bullying left Martin fleeing the team and Incognito claiming the vicious text exchanges were misunderstood, that taken in the culture of the dressing room they were actually all about “friendship.”
Carson Shields believes no such thing. It is, pure and simple, bullying. And it is not done so much to initiate and welcome new young players to a group as it is to send out serious warning signals.
“You have 19- and 20-year-olds organizing this ‘party’ for 17-year-olds who are there to take a veteran’s job away,” he says. “So what’s he going to do? He doesn’t want that kid to take his spot. So he intimidates him.”
“I agree with him,” says Paul Carson, Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey development. “They mask this as being about ‘belonging’ through hazing. It’s bullying.”
“The culture is changing,” adds Todd Jackson, Hockey Canada senior manager in charge of safety. “We are seeing a shift but we’ve got to continue to push.”
Both Calgary-based Carson and Ottawa-based Jackson believe one key is parental awareness and involvement: monitoring off-ice team activities that involve their youngsters and communicating with the youngsters so they are aware hazing is unacceptable behaviour. They are especially concerned with the repercussions from such activity in the age of social media.
“The way the Internet is now,” Carson says, “it could have ruined my life.”
Even without Twitter and Facebook, it almost did.
There is no doubt Carson Shields was a troubled young man, capable of being wild on and off the ice, even before the hazing. But it was the hazing, his parents came to believe, that triggered something that changed their son irrevocably.
“Something was stolen from him that night,” Larry says. “Whatever it was, it led him to overcompensate in going in the other direction.”
Carson now knows this to be true. All the bad, all the demons, all the bad behaviour, seem to date from that humiliation. Having been so seriously degraded that night and living in terror that those photographs would follow him, he set out to become what he calls the “Swinging Dick” of junior hockey.
His manhood would never be challenged. He would be the ultimate warrior, the very definition of hockey’s treasured “character” player.
“He was the kind of guy who would do whatever it took to win,” says Randy Lulashnyk, who coached the Dryden Ice Dogs to the Superior International Junior Hockey League championship with Carson playing a key role on defence.
“He might have looked like an enforcer but he could play. He could make that first good pass.”
But his main role was intimidation. Colin McIntosh, the Ice Dogs best player and leading scorer that year, recalls being crosschecked after a whistle and Carson skating across the ice to tear into the opposition player.
“Back at the bench the coach goes, ‘Shields – what was that?’” McIntosh recalls. “Carson’s simple reply was ‘Nobody touches Mac and gets away with it.’ And for two years, though I never asked for it, I knew that Carson always had my back.”
Lulashnyk began to hear stories of his player’s off-ice behaviour and it concerned him. “I had ideas,” he says from Yorkton, Sask., where he now lives. “But I had no proof. … Nobody wants to tell the coach.”
Another player on the team, Jonathon Mitchell, says he and the other rookies heard the stories of Carson’s abusive behaviour but, he adds: “Never once did Carson force those choices of his on others – that speaks to the character he has as a person.” He protected the rookies off the ice as well as the stars on the ice.
At one point, Carson asked to be dealt to another team, convinced he needed a new start away from his growing personal troubles. Lulashnyk granted the request. Not long after, Carson called about coming back, but he was turned down. “I wanted Carson Shields the player to come back,” the long-time junior coach says. “I didn’t want Carson Shields off-ice to come back.”