On Tuesday afternoon, March 11th, the body of missing OHLer Terry Trafford was found in the back parking lot of a Walmart in Saginaw Township, Michigan by state police. The 20-year-old Trafford was last seen on the morning of March 3rd at the Dow Centre, home of the Saginaw Spirit—the OHL franchise Trafford had played for the last 4 years.
As pieces of the story begin to emerge we are left with heavy hearts and unanswered questions. Could this have been prevented? Why did he feel like he had no other options? What lessons should we take out of this horrible tragedy? As we wade through these questions to search for answers, we walk a fine line that pits old school vs. new age thinking, tough love vs. coddling, and right vs. wrong.
As I dissect this situation, it is important to understand that not all of the facts have been made available and I can only base my thoughts on what has come to light. But for the purpose of this article, perception and generalizations will work. Terry Trafford represents a specific demographic—junior hockey players, and more specifically, major junior hockey players. It is this demographic and the business of junior hockey that I want to examine while trying to make sense of this whole horrific ordeal.
The elephant in the room in this horrible tragedy is mental health, and more specifically, support of the illness and the stigma associated with it. In Trafford’s case, it seems apparent that it was well known that he had been suffering from depression for years and that steps were taken by the Spirit organization to help him during his struggles (At the beginning of Trafford’s final season, Spirit President, Craig Goslin, took the responsibility of billeting the young forward in the hopes to provide support and mentorship).
From an outside perspective, it seemed that the Spirit organization was taking some responsibility in helping Trafford cope with his illness, right? I mean, Craig Goslin (And I’m not knocking Mr. Goslin here) is an upstanding citizen with a strong background in marketing and finance, so he clearly knows exactly how to treat and mentor mental health sufferers, right? The Spirit organization had their heart in the right place but the decisions being made were uninformed and ineffective. Mental health sufferers don’t need a good role model, they need professional help.
Knowing the severity of his condition (and depression is extremely severe and debilitating), why did the Spirit just simply send Trafford home? My contention is that they did it out of ignorance and not insolence. Some argue that Trafford broke team rules and that there are consequences to rules. It is one thing to suspend a player and keep them under your watch while you help them deal with their known issues and it is another thing completely to “Send him home.”
There are others who say that people like Trafford are high-level athletes and should be able to deal with disappointment. The fact is Trafford, like almost all OHLers, was a star on his teams growing up. When he reached the OHL, he faced his first major bout with adversity in hockey. His ice time plummeted, his point totals dropped exponentially and his confidence, undoubtedly dropped. Like any 16-year-old would in his situation (Living away from home for the first time, in a different country), Trafford experienced some sadness. Would he ever reach the potential bestowed upon him as a star midget player from a powerhouse Telus Cup contending team? Would he ever get the chance to become a pro?
Most involved in junior hockey aren’t experts in mental health. And the fact remains that there is a stigma plaguing the sport of hockey that systematically prevents hockey players from admitting weakness or vulnerability. If you cry, you’re a pussy, so tough it out. Be mentally tough! If you’re hurt, suck it up and push through. This is the mentality and expectation of the sport.
I don’t think the Saginaw Spirit organization is to blame in this tragedy. At the end of the day, a tragedy is a tragedy and no one ever wants to see someone take their own life in despair. As mentioned earlier, I believe the Spirit did what they thought was right and provided the support they thought was good enough.
The problem I have with the whole situation is the neglect by the OHL and all major junior leagues, regarding support for mental health. The fact is that the kids that play major junior often leave home at 16 or 17 years-old, on the premonition that they are taking the next step to achieving their dreams. These kids are pitched to sign cards by men promising the moon (it’s a sales pitch and the OHL is a business, I get it). They are offered school packages to offset the competition from the NCAA and are setup in billet family homes, given a weekly stipend for minor expenses and medical care.
Most look at this package and say, “Great! Where do I sign?” Most think that this is more than enough compensation for a teenager to play the game he loves. But I think there should be more. These kids deserve more.
My feeling is that, as a franchise, you are taking on the responsibility of caring for a minor (most players enter the OHL at 16 or 17 years-old) and should shoulder the responsibility to help develop and mentor each kid from the first season to the last and do everything in your power to help them develop as well-rounded, healthy individuals. More needs to be in place with regards to overall development and Georges Laraque and the CHLPA were on the right track before their venture ended in disaster.
While coaching at the Tier II junior A level, I was in the position to witness the state of players who had been released from OHL franchises. Can’t miss, sure fire prospects like Colt Kennedy (Drafted 12th overall, 2007, Sarnia Sting), who spent 3 seasons on 3 different teams in the OHL before being thrown to the scrap heap, were on their way down the ladder, confused, angry and in need of direction. Players like the immensely talented Kennedy, never got the direction they needed at such a young age. They carry the burden of lofty expectations and in the end, are easily ignored and forgotten.
Since you can trade players at the major junior level, there is no expectancy to develop and take responsibility for players and their well-being. It’s strictly about results and the OHL is a results-driven business that just happens to employ minors. Almost every ex-OHL kid that I coached over 4 seasons in the OJHL said the same thing to me: “They (the OHL franchise) told me I had a better shot at reaching my dreams in the OHL than in the NCAA and that I’d have a great future there. They said that they’d take care of me.” Each one of those kids came through those Tier II doors at 19 or 20 years of age with the dejected mindset that they missed their opportunity and the dream was all but over.
Over 90% of OHL players will never reach the NHL—the ultimate dream. With this realization, comes a feeling of sadness. Some experience this feeling in manageable doses, while others experience a much deeper pain. Knowing this reality, doesn’t it make sense that the OHL should signify promoting and supporting mental health as a major priority in their mandate? I guess when you’re promising a kid the world in order to sign him, it kind of kills the mood to say, “There is a 90% chance you will never play in the NHL, but we will do everything in our power to ensure that you have the support you need if we decide to cut you next season or the one after that.”
At the end of the day, there needs to be better preventative and transitional controls in place. The organizations and leagues need to put more emphasis on personal development and personal well-being. Although junior hockey is a business, these kids aren’t pros. There is an obligation to prioritize development. Theo Fleury wasn’t sufficiently protected and developed and neither was Terry Trafford.