Black & Blue

My father used to beat the shit out of me.

I don’t say that to be shocking, or to get your attention. I say that because it’s just a simple fact. He would throw punches. Not like he was hitting a small child — but like he was in a bar fight with a grown man. Whenever some people hear the phrase “child abuse,” it’s very hard for them to think about what’s really happening. They imagine discipline that gets out of hand once in a while, because it’s easier that way.

How many times have you heard someone say this?

“My parents used to give me the belt, and I turned out OK.”

So let me be really clear about what happened to me. From the moment I got my first pair of hockey skates at five years old, I got the living shit kicked out of me every single day. Every day after hockey, no matter how many goals I scored, he would hit me. The man was 6-foot-2, 250 lbs. It would start as soon as we got in the car, and sometimes right out in the parking lot.

By the time I was 10, it got worse. He would put cigarettes out on me. Choke me. Throw full soda cans at my head. Every time I stepped on the ice, I knew that my play would determine just how bad I got it when we got home. I’d score a hat trick, and afterward we’d get in the car and he would tell me that I played “like a faggot” (that was his favorite term, which says a lot).

Courtesy of Patrick O'Sullivan

I thought it was normal. As a kid, you just don’t know any better. He would wake me up at 5 a.m. and force me to work out for two hours before school. I remember I had this heavy leather jump rope, and if he thought I wasn’t working hard enough, he would force me to take my shirt off and he’d whip me with it. If the jump rope wasn’t around, he would use an electrical cord.

He always stopped short of knocking me unconscious, because that would defeat his purpose. See, if I was passed out, I couldn’t train. 

As strange as it might sound, the routine physical abuse was something I learned to endure. A good day for me was when he beat me like normal. I could prepare myself for that. A bad day was when things got unpredictable. Sometimes I would be asleep and my father would wake me up in the middle of the night and just start hitting me for no reason at all. When you’re sleeping, you’re in your own world. You can’t prepare yourself. You can’t steel yourself for what’s coming. A few times, he locked me out of the house in the middle of winter in my pajamas, because I needed to “toughen up.”

I could go on for thousands of more words about the physical abuse, but there’s no point. When I tell people the insane details of my childhood, they have the same two questions.

Why in the hell would anyone do this to their own son?

And then …

Why in the hell didn’t anyone put a stop to it?

The first question is easy to answer. My father was a low-level pro hockey player who never made it past the minor leagues. He was living his failed dream through his child. As twisted and insane as it sounds, in his mind, everything he was doing was justified. It was all going to make me a better hockey player — and eventually get me to the NHL.

The second question is a lot more complicated. Why didn’t anybody step in and stop the abuse? My story will never reach people like my father. They’re so far off the deep end that it’s too late. But plenty of people witnessed what was happening. Every town has the Crazy Hockey Dad, but my father was so far above and beyond that cliche. I’d come into the locker room with bruises and cuts, and he’d spend the entire game screaming and banging on the glass. He got into brawls with parents from the other team right in the stands, many, many times.

But all I ever got from the other hockey parents was a concerned, “Are you ok?”

And, of course, I’d say, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

That would be the end of it. Nobody called the cops. Nobody ever confronted him. The overall mentality back then, especially in the hockey community, was “whatever happens in their house, stays in their house. That’s their own business.”

But even in my own home, the abuse was ignored. I’ll never forget this moment when I was 10 years old. I was about to leave the house for a game when my mother pulled me aside and whispered, “You better play well out there today, because if you don’t, it’s going to be bad tonight.”

Right then, it dawned on me that my mother was never going to do anything about it. Our neighbors weren’t going to do anything about it. The other hockey parents weren’t going to do anything about it. I was going to have to stop it myself.

That’s a very frightening feeling to have as a 10-year-old kid. I thought, Well, one day you’re going to get big enough to stand up to him. For the next six years, I just tried to survive. Each morning, I’d wake up and think: Here we go again. Just get through it.

The abuse got worse, and I just kept getting better and better on the ice. That’s the truly sick thing. I think part of the reason nobody said anything was because I kept putting the puck in the net.

Professional sports — and let’s be honest, Canadian Junior hockey is professionalized — is a meat market. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s all about performance on the ice.

By excelling, it was almost like I was reinforcing what my dad was doing. I can just imagine the thought process of the other parents and coaches:

“Well, his dad’s a nutcase, but he’s the best player on the ice, so it can’t be that bad. Hell, maybe that’s what it takes to be the best.”

The thing is, my success had nothing to do with my father’s over-the-top training regimens. The ice was my safe space. The two hours I had out there was the only time I truly felt free. When I stepped onto the ice, he couldn’t touch me. Everything became easy.

Actually, the main reason I was scared to tell anybody about the abuse when I was young was because I thought my father would find a way to take away the only thing I loved — playing hockey.  

When I turned 16, I became the No. 1 pick in the Ontario Hockey League draft. You might assume the abuse stopped there, but in my dad’s mind, his methods “worked.” I was on the path to the NHL. So the abuse only intensified. One night after a game during my first year in the OHL, I was sitting on the bus with my teammates when my dad came storming in and literally grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to his car.

“That’s it, you’re done with hockey. You don’t deserve this. We’re going home.”

I got in the car and he started driving home. And then something in me just snapped. We stopped to pick up my sisters at our grandparents’ house, and I jumped out and said, “This is all stopping right now. I’m not going home.”

We got into a fight. Our first real fight, where I fought back, and didn’t stop. My mom and grandparents watched from the window as we brawled right in the driveway. It went on for minutes, which is an eternity in a fight. I can’t even remember how it finally stopped. I just remember him jumping in the car and driving off. I ran into the house and called the police. 

When the cops showed up, they put out an APB for him, but I just shook my head and showed them his photo. “Just come to my next hockey game,” I said. “He’ll be there. He can’t stay away.”

Two games later, he showed up. The cops arrested him at the rink.

When I filled out the police report, I just gave the basics. I could have gone on for hundreds of pages, and I wish I had, because my father got out of jail after a month or two. The restraining order I took out against him said he couldn’t come within 100 feet of me, but it didn’t stop him from showing up to my games.

I’d see him up there in his same spot, watching me.

A few years later, his dream finally came true. I was selected in the second round of the 2003 NHL Draft. The NHL assigned me an entire security team for the day, but I knew it was useless. He made sure he was seated right where I could see him.

So when my name was called and I pulled on the Minnesota Wild sweater, I knew he was in the building watching, and it made me absolutely furious. Not because of all the pain I endured. But because I knew that he believed, in his heart, that all his abuse was validated. He thought he was the reason I made it to the NHL. The ends justified the means.

That’s absolutely ridiculous. You know why I made it to the NHL?

Because on the weekends, I’d get as far away from him as I could. I would stay out of the house all day by myself, with nothing but a hockey stick and a ball. Deking, deking, deking. Shooting, shooting, shooting. Over and over and over until the stick became an extension of my body.

That’s it. That’s why I made it.

Once you get to the pro level and you witness how fast the game moves, you finally realize that no amount of running or weight lifting or private lessons is going to change one simple question: Do you understand hockey? Do you really understand the game? Do you know where that puck is going next?

Either you have it or you don’t. Screaming at your kid in the car on the way to a hockey game isn’t going to get them to the next level. Having a 12-year-old kid run six miles after practice isn’t going to turn them into Jonathan Toews.

You know when you actually get good at sports? When you’re having fun and being creative. When you’re being a kid. When you don’t even realize you’re getting better, that’s when you’re getting better. If you’re not engaged in what you’re doing, it’s as helpful as taking the trash out. It’s just another chore.

But that’s not what some parents, even normal ones, want to hear. Honestly, that’s not the direction youth hockey is trending. When I was in the NHL, I’d be doing my off-season workouts at the gym with Daniel Carcillo and some other NHL buddies, and we’d look over and see 12-year-old kids doing the same two-hour workout we were doing, with a trainer screaming at them the whole time. Half the time their parents would be there, yelling at them, too.

And it’s absolutely comical. It’s doing nothing.

True story: I played with Drew Doughty his rookie year in Los Angeles. He came into camp and he could barely do one rep on the bench press. He’ll laugh about it now. He was not in shape at all, at least in the way these “Old Time Hockey” blowhards talk about it. Then we’d go out for practice and he’d be the best player on the ice. Doughty was just a pure, natural hockey player with incredible vision and a brain for the game.

He was in hockey shape. He could think circles around you.

Either you have it or you don’t. All this hardass training stuff is just fluff, and it enables the same culture that allowed my father to treat me like an animal in front of other adults for so many years. It started right in the parking lot. People saw it. They just didn’t have the courage to say anything.

I’m not writing this article for my father. I’m writing it for the people in the parking lot.

Yes, if you say something, you may ruin the relationship you have with that person. You may get embarrassed in front of the other hockey parents. You may have to go through the awkwardness of filing a police report.

I can understand why a lot of people worry, “But what if I’m wrong?”

If you are wrong, that’s the absolute best case scenario. The alternative is that child is a prisoner in his own home. What you’re seeing in the parking lot or outside the locker room — whether it’s a kid getting grabbed and screamed at, or shoved up against a car — could just be the tip of the iceberg.

It’s so ironic, because the hockey community loves to talk about toughness and courage. In that world, courage is supposed to mean standing in front of a slap shot without flinching, or taking your lumps in a fight.

But that’s easy. That’s not real courage. Anybody can do that.

I guarantee you there’s hundreds of kids across North America who will get dressed for hockey this weekend with their stomach turning, thinking the same thing I did as a kid:

“I better play really good there, or tonight is going to be really bad.”

It just takes one person to act on their instinct and stand up for that child. That’s real courage. The kind we don’t always glorify in the hockey world.