“I was always ‘23.’ That was my number, ‘23,’” he says. “The day I got my student card I looked at the number and I was no longer ‘23.’ I didn’t know anybody – but, more important, nobody knew me. That was scary.”
Without his on-ice persona, without his well-earned “rep” in hockey, he felt he had lost his identity. In the small towns and cities where he had played, he couldn’t even go for coffee without being hailed and admired. Now, if he went for coffee he sat alone. He took to drinking, alone, in his car in the campus parking lots.
He fell in with a rough crowd. It was, in many ways, his new team and he felt as though he was becoming a somebody again, the big tattooed tough guy who moved with ease among drug dealers and other criminal elements.
He became close with a major dealer, a man who took him to crack houses where children were soiled and whimpering while their parents lay high in the next room. He could not stand seeing such squalor and neglect so, one night, he stayed outside in the car while his friend went in to deal the drugs.
That was when he felt the barrel of a 9-mm pistol touch his temple, a choke line slip around his neck.
“Where is buddy?” he was asked.
Buddy, fortunately, emerged soon after and, even more fortunately, was carrying enough cash to satisfy the three burly men with the gun.
A second incident resulted in Carson being picked up by Winnipeg police, photographed and charged with assault. The court decided to send him to a facility where he was placed on a course for anger management.
It was there he finally had his epiphany: “I decided that I owed it to myself and to my parents to try and take a serious stab at university and being a productive member of society.
“I needed to straighten out – and quick.”
It is late fall of 2013. In the spring, Carson Shields will graduate from conflict resolution studies at the University of Winnipeg. He lives with his parents. He has part-time work with Manitoba Hydro. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He does volunteer work for a charity (hockeyhelpsthehomeless.com) raising money to build three shelters for the homeless.
And he is back in hockey, an assistant coach with the Transcona Railer Express, a local Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League team. The players are all aware of his “rep” when he was a player. They call him “Reggie Dunlop” after the feisty Paul Newman character in the iconic hockey movie Slap Shot.
“Carson is probably the most-liked coach on the team,” Express captain Greg Myall says. “Guys in the dressing room know he can relate to our generation and can be someone to go to and talk with if there is an issue individually or as a group. He knows when to be serious and the right time to have fun with the guys.
“He’s a really good coach,” says Bruce Sirrell, the old Kelvin High School teacher/hockey coach who is now running the Express. “He’s really settled down and changed. I’m too old to have the rapport with the guys that he has.”
At his son’s urging, Larry signed on with the Express as the assistant equipment manager – “glorified water boy,” he calls it. Father and son go to games together, just as they did 15 years ago, but the only expectation is they will enjoy the game and pass on what they can.
Larry now knows what his son lived through. They attend therapy sessions together. Larry and Carol now know just how far their baby fell, and if they had to pick a starting point for the long descent, it would be that rookie party.
“I never at any point thought it would have the damage it did,” Larry says. “I love this game, you know. It’s a wonderful game – but there is a sickness in the game …”
Carson agrees, a dark side to a wonderful game that serves no known purpose, that has no reason to be. That should no longer be.
“I swore that when it came my turn, it would never happen to others like it happened to me,” Carson says. He has set up a Twitter account (@CarsonShields23) where junior players can contact him if they wish to talk.
“Nobody think for a moment that I’m now some sort of prince,” he cautions. “I’m the furthest you can imagine from that. But I’m trying to pass on the lessons that I’ve learned.
“I’m hoping to make up for all those things that I’ve done.”
Follow me on Twitter:@RoyMacG