|Whether between boys or girls, bullying is wrong. Period.|
Heavy topic today. Bully is a very important topic for me, because it's the antithesis of what team sports should be about. Team sports are meant to build character, not tear it down. They should be an example that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, not a vehicle that allows some players to gain some misguided "advantage" over their teammates.
After my sophomore year in high school, my family moved, from New Jersey to New Hampshire. It was there, during my first season with the Central High hockey team, that I saw bullying in all its ugliness. The seniors wanted to "initiate" me. I wasn't going to let that happen, and I got into a few locker-room brawls because I wouldn't back down. To make things worse (for me), I wouldn't let the seniors initiate the freshmen either, because I wouldn't stand by idly while these 15- and 16-year-olds were bullied. That's not what my parents, and former coaches, taught me.
Of course, my actions had repercussions, and that season was pretty miserable, from a team standpoint (though I did make some great friends who weren't among the seniors). However, three decades later, one of those freshman reached out to me, via Facebook, and told me that he never forgot how I stood up for him. Whatever modest success I had as an athlete, none of it compared to getting that note.
The column below prompted a small firestorm among some readers of the New England Hockey Journal, because they recognized the players and schools involved (although I refrained from using the real names of any player or any school). Those people missed the point. This column is about the deleterious effects of bullying, and why it should never be accepted, at any level. Let me know what you think ...And thanks for reading!
Bullying has no place on the ice, or locker room
After a half century in the game of hockey, I thought I'd see it all (shades of Barry Melrose, who made the same comment after BU's Matt O'Connor handed Providence the tying goal in the 2015 NCAA final). Wrong.
Until now, I had never, ever, seen a mid-game fight between two high school goalies. Girls. On the same team. On the ice. During the break between periods, as the coach was giving instructions. In a lighthearted spring pick-up league. Crazy.
It was so surreal, that other parents and I thought the two girls were just goofing around. My daughter, who was on the same team as the combatants and on the bench right in front of the goalies, thought the same thing. When she realized that it was a genuine brawl, she stepped on the ice to separate the two, but she wasn't as quick as the coach.
That coach, to her credit, was on the girls in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the mother of one of the goalies started screaming from the stands, and running toward the rink door.
"I've had enough of this," she hollered menacingly, pointing an accusatory finger directly at the girl who was tussling with her daughter.
It was a scene right out of some Fellini movie, unnerving and uncomfortable. Unless you knew the back-story. I did know part of that back-story, and quickly put the pieces together.
Just by chance, I had an opportunity to talk with the same mother before the game. It wasn't planned (at least not on my part). We had seen each other for the better part of the past two years, but never really had any serious conversation. But this afternoon, we found ourselves sitting together on a lobby bench, and we got to gabbing.
Her daughter, Abigail, was a high school freshman at Holy Name Prep (I'm refraining from using real names – people or schools – since I didn't have a chance to fully investigated the story). I say "was," because she transferred out of Holy Name in February, to another private school. The reasons, according to her mom, that precipitated that move were pretty disturbing.
Again, according to her mom, Abigail came to Holy Name the year before as an 8th grader, and was one of four goaltenders on the team. That's a dicey situation right off the bat. Most girls' high school teams are desperate for one goalie. Two is a luxury. Four is a problem, for obvious reasons. There's only one net, and one goalie plays. That meant Holy Name had three goalies in a back-up role.
During Abigail's 8th grade year, Holy Name had a senior goaltender who was the clear-cut starter. A natural order was established.
But, apparently, Abigail's stable mates – two freshman last year – were looking to the future, a future without the senior goaltender. So, according to Abigail's mother, the two targeted her daughter. The hazing started early, and soon became relentless. It ranged from annoying (a missing glove or other piece of equipment) to tampering (removing the edge from her skates) to physical abuse. Beatings. The mom said she regrets not taking pictures of the bruises that dotted her daughter's back and rib cage.
She said she went to school administrators, who told her she needed to talk to the coach (a male). She said she talked to the coach, but he said she needed to talk to school administrators. Talk about going in circles. Mom confided that it was clear that no one wanted to take responsibility. That's a damn same.
There's usually (but not always) two sides to every story. That's Journalism 101. But I've also learned that sometimes the story is simply the story. When a school, and a coach, stonewalls a parent, it typically raises suspicion. But rather than fight a deck that she felt was stacked against her daughter, the mom decided to enroll Abigail at another school. I told her that I hoped things would work out for her daughter, and went into the rink to watch some hockey.
That's when things went completely sideways. Abigail played the first half, and nothing seemed out of place. But, during the intermission between halves (again, this was springtime practice hockey), Abigail and the other goalie on her team started flailing away at each other.
A third goalie whom I happen to know, and who was skating as a forward in the same game, got off the ice at the same time as the goalies, and followed Abigail into the locker room to console her. When that girl came by the stands, I called her over, and asked if the second girl also went to Holy Name. "Yes," she said. "How did you know?"
Of course, I didn't, at least not until an hour before the game. But once I saw the girls taking swings, it made perfect sense. "Just a hunch," I said.
"Yeah, they've got history," said the girl.
And that was it. The first girl walked straight out of the rink, likely for the last time. Abigail and her parents spoke briefly to the rink manager, before also calling it a day. The game went on, and the little pas de deux between netminders was quickly forgotten. But I walked out of the rink that day with two long-time lessons being reinforced.
The first, of course, is you rarely know the entire story. If I hadn't had that chance conversation with Abigail's mother before the game, I would have cast the entire incident in an entirely different light. Even my daughter, who doesn't know either girl and was still puzzled by the whole incident afterward, said she was taken aback when the other goalie leveled Abigail.
All that said, I'm not buying the story Abigail's mom shared completely, not without getting both sides. But I've been around the game long enough to now that when a parent feels that strongly, there's usually some basis to her concerns.
The second, and equally important, is that bullying can never, ever be tolerated. Ever. I don't buy the "boys will be boys" or "girls will be girls" argument. Not anymore. I've seen this up close, and any coach that dismisses parental concerns out of hand probably ought to be dismissed.
Coaching a high school team goes far beyond X's and O's. Coaches need to accept and embrace the responsibility of how each player on their team behaves. The locker room is the coach's locker room. If they fail to police it adequately, they not only fail the boys and/or girls in that locker room, but also the parents who entrust their children to that particular program. That's especially true for men who coach girls' programs, because they don't have the same locker room access. It's imperative that they create a culture where bullying is not tolerated. At all.
I don't know everything that happened at Holy Name Prep, and what exactly led to Abigail feeling like she had no choice but to transfer to a different school. But I've seen far too many coaches fail in their responsibility to make sure that every child knows the locker room is a safe haven. There is no place for hazing, or bullying. None.