Every junior hockey team has a prankster. In Saginaw, it was Terry Trafford.
He was the player who would hide water cups in shin pads and go to the rink extra early to unscrew the hooks holding up his teammates’ skates in the Spirit dressing room.
“He would always take my scissors and tape them up somewhere where I couldn’t find them,” said former Saginaw teammate Brandon Archibald. “He always did it for fun and it was good for team morale in the locker room – he was a good locker room guy.”
Trafford was also the first player to welcome newcomer Gregg Sutch after a trade brought him to Saginaw. Sutch remembers walking into the Spirit room for the first time and being greeted by the face of his soon-to-be linemate and eventual dear friend.
“He just sat there with this goofy smile and said, ‘Hey, I'm Terry Trafford’," recalled Sutch. “He put his hand out to shake . . . just a genuinely friendly guy.”
Even after Sutch, now 22, graduated from the Ontario Hockey League, he and Trafford kept in touch regularly with their cell phones – sending text messages and whatever else would make them laugh.
“Traff was notorious for sending the funniest pictures, whatever came to his mind,” said Sutch. “That's what made him a special kid, people gravitated towards him.”
And perhaps it’s because he was so widely known as being the warm, fun, friendly teammate that makes Trafford’s tragic death so hard for many to comprehend. The body of the 20-year-old Toronto native was found in his truck Tuesday in the parking lot behind a Walmart in Saginaw Township. Michigan State Police have yet to release an official cause of death.
“The reaction from everybody is all the same – everyone’s just absolutely shocked,” said Geoff Schomogyi, who coached and trained Trafford at the Varsity Hockey training facility in Brampton, Ont.
“He was just a super kid,’’ said Schomogyi, who first met Trafford as a 15-year-old. “He was a happy-go-lucky kid who always had a huge smile on his face. Every time you saw him he looked like he was having a great time no matter what he was doing.”
Trafford was known as an excellent skater with a quick stride and a player quick to stand up for his teammates. As a kid, Trafford excelled in boxing, winning a number of titles and even placing fourth at a world championship event in Kansas.
His former teammates said he was the kind of guy who would be first to congratulate you for a goal or a good shift. He was the kind of guy who would always offer encouragement.
So how did such a promising life come to such a tragic, untimely end?
Trafford had been missing since March 3 after being sent home by the Ontario Hockey League’s Spirit for violating team rules. The team where Trafford spent his entire OHL career would not specify what rules were broken. His girlfriend of four years, Skye Cieszlak, told various media outlets it had been for smoking marijuana.
Archibald, who played with Trafford for two and half seasons in Saginaw, said he didn’t recall the forward ever being disciplined or getting into trouble when they were teammates.
Cieszlak said the news of being sent home by the team had left Trafford “completely devastated” because hockey was his life. Sutch and Archibald, 21, both recently retired from hockey, understand the identity crisis that results from leaving the game.
“We get caught up in it, it becomes who we are, and when you take that away from us, we don't know who we are anymore,” said Sutch, now working as a cross-fit trainer in Newmarket, Ont. “We ultimately get wrapped up in our one dream, to make the NHL, and when we lose sight of that, we lose sight of who we truly are.”
Even Schomogyi, who played NCAA hockey at UMass-Lowell, said he went through a similar experience.
“This is a shame, and hopefully this wakes people up a little bit,” said Schomogyi. “I don’t want to point fingers or blame anyone, but there needs to be something in place for these young kids. You forget how young they are sometimes.
“We treat them like adults but at the end of the day they’re just kids playing a game.”
Cieszlak told a Toronto newspaper that she was concerned about Trafford’s mental health because he had battled depression. But neither Sutch nor Archibald – or any of their former teammates – said they saw anything that would have led them to believe Trafford was dealing with a mental illness.
“I would never have guessed that Traff was battling depression, he always seemed to be the happiest kid around,” said Sutch. “That's part of the reason why this is such a struggle to deal with because none of us saw this coming. Unfortunately, there are some of us who eat up our demons and make it impossible to tell.”
Archibald said being sent home along with the notion – real or not – that his hockey career was over could have been the tipping point for Trafford.
“When hockey stops you don’t know what the next step is because that’s all you’ve ever done,” said Archibald, who is in pre-med at Michigan State University. “That’s a big part of your life that gets taken away and when it’s gone it can be difficult to deal with.”
Both Archibald and Sutch believe it’s important for players to know that there are people willing to listen – no matter what the problem is, even if they’re afraid of repercussions from management or coaches.
“At the OHL level it’s the first taste for kids where (hockey) becomes a business and you’re kind of a pawn – you’re just a piece of the business,” said Archibald. “So when it’s that serious, guys need to talk about it. Your teammates are always there for you. They're never going to say 'that's not a big deal; stop being a baby.'
“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.”