As part of their initiation ritual, rookie players on the Dalhousie women's varsity hockey team were asked to guess who among them was gay.
Some of the players thought nothing of the question at the time. It was asked at previous rookie parties along with who they thought was the prettiest player, who had a boyfriend, and who they believed to be the biggest "bitch."
But those questions, especially the one about sexual preference, have come back to haunt the young women. Dalhousie University garnered international attention in early January when it suspended 17 of 22 players – all but the five rookies – on its women's hockey team after an investigation in response to a complaint about the initiation party last September.
The Dalhousie Tigers wear black and gold but this story comes in shades of grey. When is hazing not hazing but, in the eyes of some participants, just a display of openness? How do school officials, seemingly justified in conducting an investigaton, end up accused of being bullies themselves?
The women's hockey team was forced to forfeit the rest of the season. Nearly two months after their suspensions, players are still dealing with the stigma, which has made them feel like pariahs in the community. And they believe the way they were treated by the university administration was as humiliating and intimidating as any hazing at the party.
Players deny salacious rumours of nudity and sexual activity that have spread in Halifax. The university insists activities went far beyond what the players have described, but refuses to reveal the exact nature of the complaint. It was initiated by a parent of one of the rookie players. One rookie quit the team just after the complaint was made and the investigation was launched.
Players interviewed by The Globe and Mail believe the question about sexual orientation was at the heart of the complaint – a question they insist was not meant to degrade, embarrass or abuse, but to create an atmosphere of openness on the team as several of the players are gay.
But the university didn't see it that way. That question was a point of interest during individual interrogations of the players by university officials, including a campus security officer, Jake MacIsaac.
"He said, 'You're missing a question. What about the one about being gay?' third-year player Isabelle Germain recalls. The 21-year-old, who would later become the spokeswoman for the team – and a target of derision in the community as a result of going public – told The Globe that Mr. MacIsaac focused on the fact that the senior women asked the rookies to guess who was gay. Later, she says, he told her that question could be construed as a hate crime.
Miranda McMillan, a 22-year-old math major, scholarship recipient and one of the team's best players, also says Mr. MacIsaac zeroed in on the question about sexuality during her interview.
University spokesman Charles Crosby won't comment on the specifics of the hazing complaint "for privacy reasons." However, the players were given a copy of the factual findings of the investigation, with personal information blacked out. He says there is no restriction on the players making this public.
The players who spoke to The Globe will not release their copies of the findings, arguing it is one-sided, that statements they made in the interviews were taken out of context, and that it is not an accurate account of the party. They also say the way the university conducted the investigation was intimidating. For some of the interviews, Mr. MacIsaac – whose title is University Community Safety Officer – was wearing his full uniform, including a bulletproof vest. A university representative took handwritten notes.
"I left feeling completely bullied," said Liz Matheson, the 23-year-old team captain, of her 90-minute interview.
While some teammates felt assured that representation wasn't necessary, Mr. Crosby says the players were "explicitly told they could have a support person in the room."
This isn't the first hazing incident at a Canadian university, but it is believed to be the first time a woman's team was suspended, says hazing expert Ryan Hamilton, a sports psychologist at the University of New Brunswick.
"We see this much more often in male sports, in terms of it coming to the surface and receiving this attention," said Dr. Hamilton, noting that 85 per cent of university athletes report experiencing hazing.
Dr. Hamilton believes that institutions need to take a strong stand against hazing rituals, but ensure that position is backed up. "What is missing is the educational component that goes along with it, and how do we prevent hazing, and what are the alternatives to hazing," he said.
Ms. Germain, who wants to become involved in anti-bullying projects, such as You Can Play, aimed at eliminating homophobia in sports, questions the message the suspension and zero-tolerance policies send to varsity athletes: "Do they bring appropriate justice, or do they imply a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy?"
Dalhousie's policy is wide open to interpretation. Mr. Crosby says the university doesn't have a "codified scale" of conduct. "There is no one-size-fits-all approach," he said. "It's a matter of reviewing situations and determining an appropriate consequence based on the behaviours in question."
According to university policy, "hazing or initiation can be in the form of voluntary or involuntary actions that relate to subjecting newcomers to degrading, embarrassing or abusive actions or activities."
Rookie Laura Brooks, 18, a kinesiology major whose hockey-playing brothers warned her about initiation parties, told The Globe that when she was asked at the party if she had a boyfriend or to single out the women she thought were lesbians, she "honestly didn't mind."
Players say the team has always tried to foster an openness around sexual orientation. "That was one key thing about the party – to tell everyone else [the rookies] that we are very comfortable about that and you can be very comfortable in your own skin," Ms. McMillan said.
Weeks after the suspension, the Dal Tigers feel they've been shunned by the broader Halifax community. A pickup game between a few Dalhousie players and a women's league team was cancelled for fear that team would face sanctions, as Hockey Nova Scotia is respecting the university suspension.
Worse, a Halifax gossip magazine ran pictures of some of the players and a story suggesting lurid sexual activity at the party. It tweeted that these women were "filthy liars." Rumours that the women were having sex with the men's hockey team or with each other spread quickly.
Campus life and school isn't as much fun as it once was for these young women. Ms. Matheson talks about the "emotional rollercoaster" she's been on since the sanctions – and the difficult lesson she learned: "One of the things I've taken from all of this is, 'don't ever expect anything to be fair.'"