What the Tragic Death of Terry Trafford has Taught Us

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.  

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.

19 thoughts on “What the Tragic Death of Terry Trafford has Taught Us

  1. I just want to commend you on such a great article. You hit the nail on the head in so many instances regarding Junior hockey. One thing not mentioned is how holier than thou most OHL coaches seem to feel entitled to acting-which leads to treating players like pieces of dirt under their shoe. These boys have worked for years fulfilling their dream of one day playing in the NHL or to the highest level of their individual ability. Like you said, most are stars in their home centres and get to the OHL and its such a HUGE adjustment. We had 2 sons lucky enough to be drafted and both ended up calling it quits – both team personnel took the love of the game and the fun out of playing any longer. It was always “keep working hard, it will all pay off”, or “keep working hard to prove to them you deserve to be there”….it was a broken record from us as parents. So in conclusion, I would hope that coaches in the future will take a step back and evaluate how they handle these young men-instead of beating them down day after day, try building them up – its amazing what a little confidence and self esteem does for an individual. Thanks again.

    • Thanks for commenting! I mentioned a young player I used to coach in my article, Colt Kennedy. “Heralded” coaches from the OHL warned us about Colt and said he was “damaged goods” and a “headache”. When we received Colt, he was definitely guarded and for the right reasons. He experienced “tough love” and was given the “real world” speech. They forgot he was 16 and 17 at the time. Colt turned out to be a wonderful kid who had the heart of gold and cared deeply about hockey, his teammates and his family. He was outwardly hard on himself and most coaches took it as a sign of disrespect to authority. In reality, he just needed someone to take an interest in his situation and help him understand that there are many ways to reach his dreams. These are young, impressionable kids who are living away from home. People forget they are vulnerable kids because some of them have the bodies of a 25 or 30 year old. Junior hockey on the whole needs to be re-evaluated. I’m all for pushing back the NHL draft age, the OHL draft age, and introducing a players union. I’m also a big believer in allowing kids to play up to 8 or 9 games of major junior without losing their NCAA eligibility. There is just too much pressure put on 16 year olds in hockey without enough support. Thanks again for commenting.

      Jamie

      • So grateful this topic is being discussed. I do have bad news. I don’t think the NCAA is any better. I have a son that
        Went that route. Coaches treat the boys the same disrespectful way. My sons full scholarship ended abruptly as well as 4 other Canadian boys. All during the same year. We suspect for budget reasons. the coach slammed my sons good character. My son went into deep despair. His entire identity gone. I, as a parent will take some blame in the role parents need to take in the transition role. He is now playing Canadian university hockey. Graduates with a better than average degree. He is so over hockey, as am I.

  2. Kids are playing way too much hockey, sometimes 7 days a week from the age of 5 or 6 and up. All in the same of keeping up with everybody else who is doing it. Why? Because it is all about money, for coaches, hockey school, ice time, team owners and all the other people with there hand in the pie. Not only that but kids are drafted way too young (15) into major junior where most are not physically and for sure not mentally capable of making such a big advancement. I suggest drafting at 17, where more kids are actually closer to their size and athletic potential. Will it change. Probably not, too many people don’t care about the kids just their own pocketbooks. Sad really. RIP Terry.

  3. This same type of treatment of players takes place in all levels of junior hockey including Jr.A., Jr.B., Jr.C. etc….players get cut, traded and waived more than players in the OHL so problems like this aren’t just isolated….take a look at the player profiles of the 18, 19 and OA players in OHA hockey….most are on their 3rd or 4th teams before they finish their junior eligibility!… Why is it that perception is the OHL is the only league that “tosses aside” aspiring hockey players….they have more stability in the OHL (just 23% of OHL players are traded before their OA year) when the number in the OHA is almost twice that….

  4. I don’t think your numbers regarding the OHA are entirely accurate. Players move around in the OHA for various reasons. Many players during their career leave home to attend post secondary school, forcing a change in teams and or leagues. Players also progress thru the system (moving from C to A, B to A, etc) necessitating a change in teams and leagues. While there is certainly a great deal of player movement in the OHA, a large portion of it is for good reasons, not just getting traded or cut.

  5. I don’t agree with you. I think it is terrible to point fingers in anyone’s direction when it comes to someone committing suicide. No matter what the situation, or how much pressure, or being sent home….no one else could possible control this young man’s decision other than himself. I have a friend who tried to kill himself years ago and thankfully was not successful with his attempt. But he had a big support system, a loving family, a good job and he left work one day with a “good bye! See you tomorrow!” and proceeded to try to shoot himself in the head a few minutes later. No one knew. On the other hand, my daughter ha a friend who was constantly talking about suicide….her friends always had to try to cheer her up and finally told a counselor who told the parents who did nothing but make the girl change schools. This situation may have had nothing to do with hockey or the OHL and your article is based on assumptions and personal feelings. Perhaps Terry had been offered counseling? Maybe he denied it and the President of the Spirit decided to house him because it was all he could do to try to help? You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Hockey is an amazing character builder and sometimes the only place where kids find peace is when they’re playing hockey. Blame the OHL? Blame the parents? Blame the girlfriend? Blame Terry? This is NOT a time for pointing fingers. Suicide is tragic. Someone was suffering enough internally to take his own life. It was more than one issue hurting this young man. But you don’t know what anyone did to try to help. This is a time for grieving and loving and hopefully forgiving. God bless Terry’s soul and God bless his family during this difficult time.

    • Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for weighing in. I think you missed the point of my article. I am not pointing blame. I mention in the article that no one is to blame but better protective and supportive measures are needed:

      “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.”

      I’m not writing this as a person who hasn’t experienced the life of a junior hockey player. I played high level junior hockey, living away from home with the pressures of following a dream. I played professional hockey and battled with bouts of depression, often contemplating suicide. For me it was always about hockey and the pressure. I abused alcohol and drugs throughout my life and wasn’t able to become healthy until I dropped my guard and received help. The dark cloud was especially severe when I was 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20, the ages of junior hockey players. It has alot to do with cognitive and mental development. Pressures and incidences of depression are very high in all teenagers, but are especially high in junior hockey players with the weight of their dreams and the pressure to perform weighing them down. The thing that makes it even harder is the stigma associated with mental illness in hockey.

      This tragic story was especially personal to me because of what I have seen over the years in hockey. The point of my article is to create awareness and help get people talking about mental illness, especially in sports like hockey. The fact is, there isn’t any support for this built into the packages offered to junior hockey players today. It’s not something people like to talk about at this stage and that needs to change. Change comes from above and it’s something the OHL, as well as other junior associations need to address.

      Maybe Terry had other issues that caused him to take his own life, but looking at the facts and knowing what it is like to live that life, my perception is that it was indeed linked to hockey, which he, and friends and family, even said “was his whole life”.

  6. First of all, I would like to send my condolences to the Trafford family and to the teammates of Terry Trafford. I hope the OHL will take a serious look at what is happening with these young players. These boy’s are not just a number but are human beings,trying to fulfill their dream.As was stated in the article,these boy’s leave their family’s,friends and their city to move to a different city to further a career in hockey.They are put with people they have never met before,and not only have to get used to a new team,coaches and billets,but are expected to perform at a very high standard,not only on the ice but school as well. As a billet for the OHL,I know what a huge responsibilty is put on these teenagers,and I think all of these players should have a professional,to help them adjust to the life they have chosen for themselves. There are ups and downs in every persons life,but if these players are not taught how to cope with these issues,how can we expect them to have a good attitude,about the things that don’t go their way. Some times these players are drafted at 15,16 years old,and are expected to always act as a professional,when they are actually just children. It’s time for the Hockey world to give their head a shake and wake up to what they are doing to these KIDS.

  7. Professional counselling should be manditory in the OHL and higher…..maybe then,tradgeties like this could be avoided.

  8. I am a mother of an OHL graduate and have been deeply saddened by the death of this young man. Your article is very well written and like that you are not placing blame as others have chosen to do. I believe the ultimate well being of any player begins with the parents. Throughout my sons career I have remained a part of his development both on and off the ice. At one point he struggled with confidence and it showed in his play on the ice and in his day to day life. I knew my son well enough to be able to recognize this despite living over 4 hours away. One phone call to his coach and he began seeing a sports psychologist paid for at the teams expense. My past experience with my sons team was always one of support and concern for the well being of the players. To all hockey parents, you can not just send your 16 year old off, wish him well and hope for the big pay cheque to come. Stay involved, stay connected and when you see a problem, act on it. Make sure your son/ daughter knows that they are more than hockey and it does not define who they are. That even without it you love them and are proud of them and they can have a life full of joy and accomplishment.

  9. I dated an OHL player for 2 years and I always thought that he lost out on his growing years of 16-21 because of this league. He ended up going to college and graduating but still lost many years of his youth in my opinion. It was very rare he was happy or satisfied. And even the lead scorers never seemed truly happy, beyond their inflated egos. Being in another country, alone with strangers, is A LOT to take in. I am happy to report that Now my ex is 27 years old and he seems fine/adjusted in life…but I know the OHL was was too much for a young kid and full of false promises for him. He was happy to return home and lead a normal life.

  10. The whole mental health commissaries, departments, facilities etc all should be made accountable for any tragic deaths such as this if there is documentation of someone trying to get help. As a mother trying to fight the system to get my teen the help she needs all I get is here; call this number or take this prescription or here is a list of therapists to call. All 3 mental health experts she has seen have all asked the same note book questions and told her she suffers depression and anxiety, take these pills and call these numbers. Not one of them have taken the time to find out what makes her anxious, sad, depressed or what she can to do help herself when she gets into these states of mind. But they are quick to ask for more funding, which I don’t disagree with, but they are not putting forth what the funding is for. You can’t expect a depressed teen to call around for a therapist, someone should be provided for them that matches their specific mental health needs.

  11. wow, people are miss the point here……..getting sent home was a choice???????????did he brake the team rules yes……. but I don’t this is what put him over the hill…….. everyone here has to be accountable for there action….looks like the team tried to help him, I’m sure there was other thing that went on that no one know……he was sent home in till he change things around for himself……yes this is sad but this was not just over being sent home……I bet they can’t say what else happen but if he wanted help there people out there to help you , but u cant give some one help if they don’t want it…again life is about choice we make……

    • Life is about making choices but when you are dealing with mental illness the choices are not clear. You say there is help for those who want it, I have been trying to find help for my daughter for almost 3 years, trust me, it isn’t as easy as you may think.

    • The team sent him home and suspended him for the weekend and told him to come back Monday after he got his head straight and he would be reinstated. They then called and left a message for him and a message for his dad Saturday night to tell him (in a voice message) that he was going to be released from the team after 4 seasons. This was revealed in an eerie interview with Terry Trafford’s father, reported by Steve Simmons. I am not surprised. I saw this alot as a junior player and as an assistant coach at the OJHL level. Teams often tried to avoid face to face conversations that were of the difficult variety. Unfortunately the time of this couldn’t have been worse.

  12. Great article, thank you. Unless you are a Billet (which we are) or a parent of one of there players, the public, has NO idea what these kids go through. You touched on many issues these kids face. It is brutal at best for all players and more so for most. The competition, pressure and treatment of these “kids” is unthinkable. They are so young and I agree with your suggestions.

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