The Terry Trafford Tragedy Going Forward

The Facts:

 1)      Initial Saginaw Spirit press release states that Terry Trafford was merely suspended and sent home for a week and not released from the club. 

The Spirit made a misstep here.  During the time of his disappearance, the Spirit organization remained mostly tight-lipped about the situation.  They did, however, make a statement saying that they suspended Trafford, but that he was still listed on the roster and the intention was to bring him back. 

2)      A story broken by Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, “Terry Trafford’s dad searching for answers”, contains information from an interview with Roy Trafford, father of Terry Trafford.  In the article, Roy talks about a voicemail left by Spirit GM Jim Paliafito stating that things had changed in Saginaw and they didn’t want Terry back.  Paliafito had stated that “Word had come down from above.”  Roy Trafford didn’t get the message until late Sunday morning when Terry had already left to return to Saginaw.  Terry had already gotten the message before he left that morning, earlier than he had originally planned.  Roy reached out to his son, who was on the road and pleaded with him to return home.  Terry stated that he had some affairs he needed to go put in order.  Later that night, Terry Trafford turned off both of his Canadian and U.S. cellphones. 

This is where the Spirit organization looks bad.  They sent Trafford home on a week suspension and told him to get his head straight and then return to the team in the right frame of mind, ready to turn the page.  Trafford and his family believed this to be the case and then the Spirit organization dropped the bomb when they said that “things have changed.” 

From my experiences as a player and as a coach at the junior A level, the suspension was a stall tactic.  I’ve seen it many times.  Suspend a kid and send them home.  In the meantime, shop the kid around and see if you can get something for him.  Remember, major junior hockey is a business.  If you can’t get anything in return, the idea is to release him because he’s damaged goods.  If I had a nickel for every time the term “headcase” was used to describe a junior hockey player by a junior hockey staffer, I’d be a rich man. 

So Trafford returns home, serves his suspension and then is told via a voicemail message (Another mistake by the Spirit organization.  Always crush a kid’s dream in person) that the team is going to release him and that the decision came from “above”.  So, in other words, don’t shoot the messenger.  In Steve Simmons’ article, Roy Trafford posed the question, what does from above mean?  Once again, from my experiences as a coach and administrator at the junior A level, “from above” is a term used to generalize a decision that was made by committee.  Everyone votes and agrees upon a decision and they provide an answer that protects everyone.  The last thing you want in a situation like this is for the coach or even the GM to look like the bad guy.  If this was to come from head coach Greg Gilbert, he risks losing the respect of his players, as Trafford was a favorite in the room.  Once the coach loses that respect, he loses the team.

The right move here for the Spirit organization would have been to wait until Trafford returned after serving his suspension and have a face to face meeting with him and explain the release.  After dropping the bomb, they should have provided him with some possible options, such as QMJHL options or Tier II junior A options (Teams should always call around to other leagues if they have exhausted all avenues in their own league to try and find a spot for a kid that has played 4 years for your organization).  The release was handled poorly.

3)      The Spirit organization maintains that they didn’t know Terry Trafford might have been suffering from mental illness.  They maintain that there were never any signs, to their knowledge. 

4)      At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the Spirit decided to billet Trafford with team president Craig Goslin and his family because Terry needed some mentorship and guidance. 

I don’t need to say much here other than if the kid had “problems” and you needed to billet him with your team president, then you knew at least that there might be an inkling of something being amiss.  Again, the Spirit organization isn’t guilty of anything other than not being educated on the complexity of mental health and its devastating effects on young individuals.  Public knowledge on the topic of mental health is still sparse.  Tragedies happen and we learn and grow from them.

5)      As reported by Neate Sager of “Buzzing the Net” / Yahoo Sports:  “Terry Trafford’s tragic death must prompt OHL to evaluate mental health strategy”

 “Each of the 20 OHL teams, as commissioner David Branch confirmed to Yahoo Sports on Thursday, is required to have a player liaison program. Each team designates a person not formally connected the club — examples can range from a pastor, to a police officer, to a social worker — whom a player can speak to with the expectation of confidentiality.”

This is another example of the powers that be not knowing enough about the devastation of depression and mental health issues.  Sufferers don’t need buddies or role models, they need help—professional help.  The liaison program is a nice thing, but it isn’t good enough on its own.  We had this program in place back when I played and we had a team liaison who happened to be a police officer.  He was a nice guy, but all he did for us was get us out of speeding tickets and make sure we didn’t get thrown in the drunk tank at 3 a.m.  They need people who have direct practical knowledge of mental health issues.   

Terry’s stats transitioning from Midget AAA to the OHL (15 years-old to 16 years-old):

2009-10 Mississauga Reps Min Midget AAA GTMMHL

60

24

29

53

 

|

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  Dixie Beehives CCHL

2

0

1

1

2

 

|

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 2010-11 Saginaw Spirit OHL

42

1

1

2

19

-2

|

Playoffs

6

0

1

1

0

Stats pulled from eliteprospects.com

The key to these stats are:  Trafford’s age as he transitions into the OHL, moving away from home and to a new country (15 to 16 years-old).  Trafford goes from captaining a Telus Cup contending powerhouse AAA midget team, where he was an offensive force to healthy scratches, minimal minutes and one goal in his rookie season in the OHL.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that there is a big jump from midget to the OHL for kids and a major shock to confidence and feelings of self-worth.  Not to mention that you’re shouldering the typical rookie chidings and menial duties as well as hazing (which is still wildly prevalent despite what is mandated by Hockey Canada). 

Moving Forward:

Below is a 4-step plan that would benefit junior hockey, as a whole, and junior hockey players. 

1)      OHL Orientation Weekend

All OHL players should attend a weekend orientation program hosted by the OHL that has guest speakers and activities designed to promote overall health awareness with a strong emphasis on mental health awareness and career planning.

2)      Team Sports Psychologist

Each OHL Team Should Have a Sports Psychologist on Staff (Guelph is the only team that currently does).  Entrance assessments should be conducted each season (The NHL conducts psychological assessments during the NHL combine) and exit assessments should be conducted at the end of each season.

3)      Alumni Mentorship Program

The OHL should develop a voluntary alumni mentorship program that matches current players up with past OHL alumni.  The mentorship program would provide current players with a mentor who has lived the life they are embarking on and has advice on how to navigate the oft-rocky paths they will encounter.  The program can support meeting for coffee (if they are located in the same region) and communicating over the phone and through email. 

4)      Discipline System Redesign

Rules are essential, but it’s how we enforce rules that determine outcomes.  Newsflash, if a kid has a history of “partying”, it is a red flag.  There is nothing wrong with having a good time here and there, but if a player is constantly breaking curfew and team rules, it is a sign.  Help is needed. 

Detecting mental health issues is certainly difficult, but there are ways to detect subtle hints.  It’s no different than when a kid gets his bell rung.  In the past, the coach or trainer said, “Are you OK?”  The kid replied, “Ya, I’m fine, just got my bell rung.”  The kid goes back out and plays and puts himself at a greater health risk.  Now if a kid gets his bell rung, they take them back into a quiet room and assess them, just to make sure. 

My feeling is that if a kid breaks a rule that suggests that there could be an issue, there should be a protocol that the kid needs to complete a specified amount of mental health counselling.  As of now, people hear the word “counselling” and cringe.  They are afraid to go to counselling because of the stigma associated with it.  We need to break down the walls of stigma and take more precautions, opening up the avenues for treatment and help. 

The incidences of depression and mental health issues are astronomical today.  Even more astronomical is the amount of people that ignore symptoms and refuse treatment.  If we build treatment into the discipline program in the OHL, it would be a major step in the right direction.  Talking about mental health awareness is one thing.  Doing something about it is something else entirely.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

3 thoughts on “The Terry Trafford Tragedy Going Forward

  1. Another good article. It still seems that The Spirit organization dropped the ball here. They aren’t aware Terry had any kind of mental problems-in yet he went to get “mentorship etc” by living with the President??? I think it has to be stressed again…..take a look at how these kids are handled by team brass-I just read an article on Spirit coach Gilbert who previously coached the Calgary Flames. Ask Berube how much respect Gilbert showed the players back then while with the Flames. And from all reports-some things never change! A kid can only get trash talked, berated, manipulated, yelled at and either healthy scratched or dress and sit on the bench with no explanation of why, and no chance to prove himself so much. David Branch can talk the talk but can he walk the walk?? How well does he know what exactly goes on in the OHL?? Apparently not well enough!! This should be his #1 priority in my eyes. Maybe instead of feeling a need to discipline a player there should be some disciplining of coaches! If they treated these players like young men instead of treating them like crap maybe some of these issues wouldn’t be an issue at all.

  2. Insightful post and great blog.

    It’s always so interesting to hear from writers who have lived the life of a player understand the world they are writing about. Keep up the good work bud.

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