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Hazing incident puts dressing room culture under the microscope

The Neepawa Natives Jr. A team has been at the center of a hazing incident.

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The Neepawa Natives Jr. A team has been at the center of a hazing incident.

In return for being the victim of a humiliating hazing, a 15-year-old hockey player from Manitoba will likely be rewarded with either a demotion or a change of address.

But that’s not the most disturbing aspect of the scandal involving the Neepawa Natives of the Manitoba Junior League, if you can believe it. No, that particular distinction belongs to one of three far more troubling developments in this initiation gone awry. They are: 1) in the year 2011, some people still think this kind of ritual is a good idea when it comes to team-bonding exercises; 2) there are young people so intimidated by authority they would permit it to happen; and 3) the “what-happens-in-the-dressing-room-stays-in-the-dressing-room” culture is so pervasive it caused some of those who witnessed it to mislead an investigation.

Yes, the hockey culture continues to be dragged kicking and screaming into the realities of the 21st century.

To recap, the MJHL has decided to reopen an investigation into a hazing incident involving the Natives that reportedly included rookie players having to strip naked and walk three times around the dressing room with water bottles tied to their scrotums. The MJHL, which handled the initial investigation, concluded at least five hazing incidents took place, but could not conclude whether assistant coach Brad Biggers was present during the hazings because of conflicting testimonies from the players.

Biggers, who was originally suspended five games, was subsequently suspended indefinitely and resigned from the team after four players who had said he was not present recanted their statements to members of the Natives executive council.

To its credit, the MJHL has decided to hire an outside investigator this time around.

The fact some players were willing to make statements they would later recant speaks to a much bigger issue in hockey. Talk to anyone who has only a peripheral involvement with hockey players and they’re amazed by the power a coach has over his players. Psychologist Dr. Richard Ginsburg of Boston works with athletes in numerous sports and said he doesn’t know one where the person behind the bench has more authority.

“I’m struck with the influence the coach has on a hockey player,” he said. “All athletes are affected by their coaches, but the power of a hockey coach, the intensity of a hockey coach, the political position of a hockey coach…it seems to me the player’s position is very fragile.”

The fragile nature of the position and the willingness to do almost anything to pursue the dream and not do anything to derail it likely prevented these rookies from simply saying no to this abhorrent behavior in the first place. And it’s likely what kept the others to go against their better judgment in their testimonies. After all, it’s not as though the young man who was victimized went to the authorities in an effort to seek justice. In fact, he never intended for any of this to get out. He actually told a friend in confidence, who told her father, who told the victim’s father. It was the victim’s father who spawned the investigation by going to the team executive. (By the way, if there is one body that can claim the moral high ground here, it is the Natives executive, led by president Dave McIntosh. They reported the original incidents to the league as soon as they learned of them, then went back to the league as soon as the four players recanted their statements).

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None of the players who were victimized actually came forward. The father also said he confronted another player on the team who had previously billeted with his family for six months and the player insisted nothing had happened in the dressing room.

“My son, knowing me, knew that if he would have told me I would have popped a gasket,” the father said. “At that point (the son) definitely thought his career was going to be in jeopardy.”

Now that career will take another turn. The league has already made an exception to its rule that prohibits teams from trading 15-year-olds, but the team that wants to trade for this player’s rights has a full roster and wants to move him down to the midget AAA ranks if it acquires him. So as a player who has already been drafted by a Western League team, he’ll either have to play an inferior level of hockey or move out of town and leave home before his 16th birthday if he wants to play at the junior level. The father, meanwhile, is confident his son has the fortitude of character to get beyond this and continue his hockey career.

The MJHL, meanwhile, has had what it thought was a thorough – albeit flawed – investigation sabotaged, largely because there were people who were too afraid to tell the truth.

“We had one group saying ‘A’ and the other group saying ‘B’, “ Davis said, “so where’s the truth?”

Thanks to four people who recanted, we’ll likely finally find that out.

Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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