Toth Sports Inc
Hrudey Treated Rookies The Right Way
By Mike Toth Bobbing for apples in a stinky old toilet.
Being forced to pound a dozen beers and tossing your cookies on the floor of a cheap motel room.
Strapped to a training table buck-naked and shaved head-to-toe with a semi-sharp razor blade.
An example of some of the "right of passage" tools used over the years by a few deranged veteran Canadian junior hockey players to initiate fresh-faced rookies.
"Gee Dad," exclaimed Theo, my wide-eyed twelve-year old hockey-loving son, as we discussed old-time junior hazing rituals. "Those sound like things you'd expect to happen in prison."
Although you'd have to think Canadian Corrections officers would be quick to step in to prevent those sorts of atrocities from taking place behind bars. Unfortunately, however, incidents such as the ones described at the beginning of this blog are at the forefront of a class-action lawsuit recently filed against the Canadian Hockey League - the body that oversees major junior hockey in our country and the United States. As a former play-by-play man for CHL telecasts on Sportsnet in the late-90's, I'm familiar with two of the lead players in the lawsuit. Dan Carcillo was a pesky, in-your-face OHL forward who went on to win a pair of Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks. Dan Fritsche, meanwhile, burst onto the OHL scene as a talented 16-year old sniper before graduating to the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Unfortunately, both Dan's claim they suffered from abusive hazing as young OHL'ers and have put their famous names on a lawsuit, saying they want to prevent today's junior players from facing similar issues.
The good news, though, is that not every junior hockey veteran gets their kicks out of bullying rookies; and not every coach turns a blind eye and allows abuse to happen. Yes, the frightening accounts of players such as Carcillo and Fritsche need to be heard. But it's also important to give credit to the many junior hockey people who do it the right way.
Back in 1980, I was a 17-year old goaltender trying out for the Western Hockey League Medicine Hat Tigers. Kelly Hrudey was the Tigers veteran puck stopper and would eventually move on to a solid NHL career before becoming a talented and popular broadcaster on "Hockey Night in Canada". With the Tigers, Hrudey was an absolute rock star. He looked like a young Elvis Presley and was one of the coolest dudes I'd ever come across - a guy who treated everyone with the same friendly spirit.
My highlight from that long ago camp?
I was walking to the rink one day from the dingy downtown Medicine Hat hotel that housed all the rookies, when I heard a "beep beep" from a car that pulled up beside me. I can't remember the make of the vehicle Hrudey was driving, but to me it felt as if Elvis himself had screeched to a halt in his famous '55 pink Cadillac.
"Hey Tother!," called Kelly, with a welcoming grin on his face. "You wanna ride to the rink?"
Almost forty years has passed since that car ride. But the crystal-clear memory has stayed with me; a simple act of kindness from a respected veteran that made a raw rookie feel like a million bucks.
That '80 Tigers camp, however, wasn't all sunshine and roses, as there were a few veterans who got perverse pleasure out of throwing a scare into the freshmen. One night, my two rookie roommates and I heard a pounding on our hotel room door. In barged a group of grizzled Tigers vets making noise about removing some of the still-developing hair particles from our still-developing young bodies. In the end, thankfully, the veterans settled for stealing a few t-shirts and hockey magazines that we had kicking around the room. You can imagine our relief as for the next hour we re-lived the ordeal and thanked our lucky stars we got off so easy.
But even minor indiscretions didn't cut the mustard with Medicine Hat's crusty coach Paddy Ginnell. The rough, tough Ginnell was famous for wearing a pitch black cowboy hat behind the bench. But at that long ago Tigers camp, Paddy seemed more like legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp than the famous outlaw Jesse James. After somehow finding out about the marauding band of Tigers veterans, Ginnell called the training camp troops to centre ice.
"The bull crap stops now!," Ginnell boomed. "Anybody who wants to mess with the rookies can stop by my office and pick up a bus ticket for home!"
Trust me. Ginnell wasn't someone to mess with, and the hazing nonsense stopped pronto. That's an important message for all junior hockey coaches, as they hold the ultimate power when it comes to controlling the behaviour of the young athletes on their watch.
Eventually, and not surprisingly considering my middle-of-the-road ability, I was one of the goalies cut at that 1980 Tigers camp - sent down to Medicine Hat's Alberta Junior Hockey League affiliate, the Drumheller Falcons. But whether it was in junior hockey or later during my playing days with the Red Deer College Kings, I was lucky to be surrounded by caring coaches and quality veterans who made the dressing room a safe and enjoyable place.
Yes, the current lawsuit against the CHL backed by courageous players such as Dan Carcillo and Dan Fritsche is crucial to improving the Canadian hockey culture. But we should also salute the Kelly Hrudey's of the world; an example of the many solid hockey people who have a huge positive impact on young athletes.
Because, when it comes right down to it, the choice for junior hockey players is pretty simple.
If you're privileged to become a veteran member of your hockey club, do you want to be known as a grumpy old goon who bullies young teammates?
Or do you want to be revered as a class act? A cool, respected veteran who gave a nervous 17-year old rookie a ride to the rink - a moment an old broadcaster who's soon to be 57 will remember forever.