His mother says he "owns" any room he walks into, and perhaps this is not merely a mother's musings. All eyes - particularly those of the young women and the waitresses - are on Carson Shields as he strides into this restaurant in the upscale River Heights neighbourhood of Winnipeg.
He has chosen the restaurant well - Inferno's - given he is coming from his own personal hell.
Tall, blond, wide-shouldered and clear-eyed, he wears a shirt so crisp and white it brightens the room as much as his smile. Peel back the shirt, however, and you will see the tattoos that seem bizarrely out of place with such a pristine first impression.
"Fortune favours the brave" is writ large across his chest, a decision made one frenetic day after being high on cocaine for the previous two. Down his right arm is tribal art, on his left scripture adapted from the book of Acts: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." Near his right elbow is a large diamond, inked at a time when he thought he held the secret to forever living the good life ... presuming he lived.
The diamond excepted, he has no regrets concerning the tattoos. "They are a road map from where I was to where I am today," he says.
And where he is today is also there for the reading: three softer tattoos that speak to the great dichotomy that is Carson Shields.
On the outside of that arm is a rose, with his goddaughter Emersyn's name beside it. The tribal art on the right arm is the Cantonese love symbol with the name of another goddaughter, Loevah, beneath. Hidden on the inside of the left arm, inked inside a burning cross, are the names of his parents, Larry and Carol.
There is no body art to show the trauma he and his parents believe so profoundly affected his life: a humiliating junior hockey hazing that took place when he was barely a teenager.
It is far simpler to see what is behind the white shirt than to know what lies back of the pleasant face, the trusting eyes.
Peel that back and you will find a 25-year-old man deeply scarred by the sick side of the game he loved and still loves. You will find a happy boy from a good family in a good neighbourhood who became an alcoholic, a drug addict and, by his own admission, a criminal. You will see a tortured young man who finally hit rock bottom when, waiting outside a Winnipeg crack house for a drug-dealing buddy, he felt the cold metal of a 9-mm pistol pressed to his temple.
Carson Shields says he needs to tell his story. His mother says he needs to tell it to heal.
He needs to show how far he fell from the simple dream he was chasing, how dark it all became and how, today, he is sober and clean, back living at home, coaching the game that all but destroyed him and attending university - one benefit of which is help in paying for the anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and high-blood-pressure pills he takes each day.
"This story needs to be told," his father says. "I'm just sorry that it was my son had to go through it to have it written."
Too much we concentrate on the far-less-than-1-per-cent, the ones who make it. We forget, as we focus on the troubles experienced by certain NHL enforcers and fighters that, just as the talented players get funnelled tighter and tighter until there are but a precious few that move on, there are the tough ones, many of them, who just were not tough enough. They, too, get left behind.
Carson Shields was, by his own measure, an "average good hockey player." Good enough for junior, not good enough for major junior. He bounced around so much - traded, sold, dropped, picked up - his father nicknamed him "Suitcase."
Between 16 and 20, he played for an astonishing 10 junior A-, B- and C-level teams in four different provinces. He was rarely seen as the team "enforcer" but always regarded as the one big and tough player who never backed down, who would, as they say, die for his teammates and, in the end, very nearly did.Report Typo/Error