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Outside the Lines

Rites and Wrongs

Athlete hazing on the rise

Athletes call it leadership

A victim calls it abuse

Problems in youth hockey

States creating hazing laws


Sports hazing incidents since 1980

Message board: What do you think about athlete hazing?


 Outside the Lines
Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell believes hazing is an issue similar to sexual assault.
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This online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television show that re-airs Saturday, April 22, at noon ET.

Tuesday, June 3
Like fighting, part of game
By Tom Farrey

From the small towns of rural Canada to a college campus in Ohio to the mountains of West Virginia where the Boston Bruins assigned their prospects, Ryan Johnston has the distinction of having played hockey at every level of the game, from pee-wee to professional. He was hazed at every stop.

The University of Vermont team whose season was cancelled for hazing activities was stocked with players from prep school and Canadian youth hockey programs.

He does not find this to be coincidence.

"I've played a lot of different sports," Johnston said, "and there's more hazing in hockey than in any other sport. I don't know if it's because the sport is more blue-collar, or because a lot of guys are straight off the farm or whatever. But it's just one of those sports."

Hazing Ryan Johnston is no easy feat: He's 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. He was enough of man-mountain even at age 15 to punch and kick his way out of an effort by the older players at Blenheim, a junior hockey club in Canada, to give him a rookie mohawk. Other times he raised no objection, such as when he skated onto the ice before a game and a half-empty arena wearing nothing but a jock strap.

His experiences are far from uncommon. The cancellation of the University of Vermont hockey season in January put a national magnifying glass on the team's initiation rituals and brought embarrassment to the school itself. But current and former players at all levels told that the type and severity of the activities that the Vermont upperclassmen asked the freshmen to engage in are nothing new to hockey.

If anything, hazing is more pronounced at the youth levels, Johnston and others said. Among the reasons:

Great hazing
Even Wayne Gretzky was hazed in junior hockey. Brian Gualazzi, one of the Great One's former teammates with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds, recounted for the Edmonton Sun last year an initiation in which the veterans took the rookies' clothes rookies and stuck the new players in a car:

"So there were seven guys sitting in the car naked, including Wayne. We had it all set up with the police so, all of a sudden the paddy wagon pulls up and somebody knocks on the window (of the car). The police arrested them with indecent exposure."

Gualazzi said that while being hauled away, Gretzky uncharacteristically tried to appeal to the police based on his star status.

"He said, 'Do you know who I am? I'm Wayne Gretzky.' And the policeman said, 'I don't care who you are. Get in.' "

The team veterans later showed up at the police station and let the rookies in on the orchestrated prank.

"Those initiation stories are always intersting because most of them you can't tell," Gualazzi said.

  • The top youth hockey players often move away from home before they graduate high school, whether to junior hockey programs in Canada or prep schools in the U.S. Away from their traditional support systems, they are vulnerable to the wishes of team veterans, who typically orchestrate hazing rituals.

  • Hockey players in those situations spend an inordinate amount of time with their new teammates, on the ice, in social settings and on buses traveling to games. Simply dressing and undressing in the locker room takes more time in hockey than in other sports that require players to wear less gear.

  • A lack of responsible supervision on the junior hockey level, where the teams often are owned by local businessmen and the players lionized in the small towns they represent.

    Elements from all of the above came together in 1994, when 13 members of the Tilbury Hawks, a junior C team in the Ontario Hockey Association, were charged with 135 criminal violations, including multiple counts of sexual assault and sexual exploitation. They were cited for their involvement in an initiation party that included group masturbation, the shaving of pubic hair, and forced drinking.

    The Tilbury players were told to do pushups and positioned on the floor so that their genitals would dip into cups of beer; whoever did the fewest pushups had to drink both beers. In another contest, the team captain placed marshmallows into the rectum of two rookies, with the last one able to push it back out being forced to eat both. Players also were blindfolded and told to lie face-up on the floor with their tongues out, as another person sat on their faces.

    All of these alleged acts happened at the home of Dennis Lebert, one of the team's owners and a respected ear doctor in Chatham. In the end, team trainer Paul Everaert, 46, and team captain Ed Fiala, 25, pleaded guilty to committing indecent sexual acts. Their punishment: a total of $6,000 in fines.

    "The (hazing) you see in hockey is highly sexual," said Laura Robinson, author of Crossing the Line, a groundbreaking 1998 book on violence and sexual assault in Canada's national sport.

    Robinson, noting that many young players are new to sexual experiences, argues that some of the initiation acts serve as a hidden way for players to explore homosexual urges. "I think the boys are curious about bodies, but because of their homophobia they had to turn it into something else" -- sexual forms of hazing, she said.

    "I've seen kids quit because they were so scared of that happening," said one college hockey player in North Dakota who spoke to on the condition he not be identified. While playing junior hockey in Montana, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, he said he saw rookies stuffed naked into the bathroom at the back of team buses, and games of tug of war in which skate laces were tied around rookies' penises. He said he also players who had strings tied around their penises, which were then connected to a hanging bucket that other players threw pucks into.

    "They think it's good for team-building, but there are other ways to do that," he said.

    Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goaltender and current president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said the only hazing he endured during his playing years was getting his head shaved at Cornell University, in 1966. But he knows that hazing can turn abusive in hockey, even when rookies seem to have given their consent.

    "The question is how it's felt, not how it's delivered," Dryden said. "You guys (who haze) may do it with a smile on your face and a laugh in your heart, but do not assume that the other guy is feeling the same way."

    Maturity can help negotiate those scenarios. By the time Johnston turned professional in 1996, with the Huntington Blizzard, an affiliate of the Bruins in the East Coast Hockey League, the only hazing that remained was being required to buy dinner for the veterans, he said. Even at Ohio University, he considered the hazing activities to be acceptable, mostly consisting of one big night of drinking.

    For Johnston, now an executive with a technology finance company, the worst of it was left in youth hockey.

    "Hazing is like fighting -- part of the game," he said. "Part of the game that people who haven't played it just wouldn't understand."

    Tom Farrey is a senior writer with and can be reached at

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