No one has all the answers about what happened to Terry Trafford, whose autopsy is supposed be held on Thursday. The death of the 20-year-old hockey player, though, surely means the Ontario Hockey League's approach to mental health failed, even if it's not completely broken.
Whether Trafford had been medically diagnosed with depression or was taking medication to manage it is beside the point. Not all with depression and its related disorder, social phobia (commonly called social anxiety), handle it with meds, speaking from my experience. The depression aspect was raised by the Toronto native's girlfriend, Skye Cieszlak, and men tend to be more likely to confide their fears to their partner, mother or sister. Perhaps establishing, or denying, depression is paramount for the sport's gatekeepers while emotions are so raw and the grief-stricken are looking for someone to blame.
At this writing, the cause of Trafford's death has not been determined. The loss of a young life must not be in vain. If that's to be, the OHL will have to examine how its structure as a "results-driven business that just happens to employ minors" — to quote a blog post by Jamie McKinven, coach of the Junior A Kingston Voyageurs — factors for mental health.
Each of the 20 OHL teams, as commissioner David Branch confirmed, 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. The liaison, however, does not have to be trained in spotting signs of either depression or social phobia. One is often called the silent killer and the other is jointly called the invisible handicap, with good reason. The Guelph Storm is the only team that lists a sports psychologist, Dr. Neil Widmeyer, on its website.
Therein lies the crack that a young life can fall through.
If calling for change is reactionary, so be it. Almost every safeguard we have in society came in reaction to something terrible. Glossing over the issue is more apt to cause a problem, as former NHL defenceman and Sudbury Wolves Jamie Rivers pointed out:
In my opinion Terry Trafford should have been offered help. I hope Dave Branch adds a program for players. It is no longer only the pros.
— Jamie Rivers (@JamieRivers08) March 11, 2014
The fear is this will get a glossing in a hockey world that doesn't give itself much time to pause and catch its breath. Teams across the Canadian Hockey League hold a moment of silence before their games; players wear black armbands; people come up with a hashtag and Trafford's passing recedes into distant memory. People focus too much on the chain of events (although it is curious why there was such a lag in between Trafford's last visit to Saginaw's arena and when Michigan state police were made aware he was missing) and not on mental health protocols.
Old-school method failed
The soapbox that is all too tempting to climb on is the notion that this should spell an end to the old-school hockey way of disciplining a player by sending him home. By no means is that meant to blame Spirit president Craig Goslin, who billeted Trafford, or on general manager Jim Paliafito and coach Greg Gilbert.
It's just a mere way of pointing out that taking away the 'carrot' of a potential hockey career is out of step with the reality of what goes on in many young people's heads, not just hockey players. It's believed to be an essential part of the junior hockey business. Regardless of whether there's causation or merely a gut feeling there's a correlation, all junior leagues are going to have to ask if it's really necessary. It might mean that too many players believe hockey means everything.
A high-performance athlete, someone once said, is like an Easter egg. Beautiful to look at but hollow. He or she must believe in invincibility, but the reality is different.
The OHL also has good intentions regarding mental health awareness. So do most other workplaces, and educational institutions. Like many others, it needs to walk the talk when it comes to factoring for it when it comes to dealing with people who are troubled. If someone cannot keep on as an active player, then there needs to be an exit protocol.
By that token, though, any mental health support network is only as good as one's willingness to use it, again speaking from personal experience with the system in Ontario. As mad as some people are at junior hockey, and as much as this is not the OHL's finest hour, the league doesn't exist in a vacuum. Young people end their lives every day.
Many players have already had their minds bent long before they get to the OHL, by pressurized AAA minor hockey environments and parents who have taken out a third mortgage to invest in their son's career. And there's also the sport's culture of toughness. As McKinven notes:
"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."
Hopefully not similarly, former Spirit Brandon Archibald told Sunaya Sapurji, "It's important for guys to realize that if you don’t want to go to management or your coaches, there are always guys on the team that are willing to listen." That's true, but the next step is the being brave and willing to seek out professional help.
No doubt some teams have done so for players currently in the league. Going that route through any team must be available, too.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.