It seems like every NHL player who has some degree of success writes a book when their career comes to an end. But what about the thousands of players who don’t make it to the NHL? What sacrifices did they make — and what scars did they pick up — along the way to ultimately fall short of reaching their dreams? In “Conflicted Scars: An Average Player’s Journey to the NHL”, ex-NHL draft pick Justin Davis talks about the hazing by teammates, horrid living conditions, and health risks he endured while playing major junior in the Ontario Hockey League. The physical scars may quickly heal, but emotional scars sometimes take decades to even be discovered before the healing can begin.
Davis was a gifted hockey player as a child who worked his way through the junior ranks, ultimately playing Major Junior hockey in the OHL: first with the Kingston Frontenacs, then the Soo Greyhounds, then the Ottawa 67s. He was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1995, but never made it to the NHL. But having enough talent to play Major Junior wasn’t enough to be accepted by his teammates. Davis talks about how he has to put up with “rookie initiations” — hazing — at every level he played at.
Davis also details some his injuries from playing hockey, including one particularly bad concussion suffered while playing for the Soo Greyhounds in a game against the Plymouth Whalers. After being checked from behind and knocked unconscious, Davis’ coaches wanted him to make the 16-hour team bus ride back to Sault St. Marie instead of rushing him to an emergency room in Michigan — because the team didn’t want to pay for medical care in the U.S. The team’s trainer objected, and Davis was taken to a hospital in Michigan. Doctors discovered a brain bleed, and Davis was in the ICU for three days. After that, the Greyhounds sent his parents the hospital bill for $15,000!
This is just one of many sobering stories told by Davis that de-glamorizes playing junior hockey.
Excerpt that Epitomizes “Conflicted Scars”: I am overcome with emotion as I write this, because deep down, I am still afraid of these people. I always tried to seek their approval, and the risk of the blowback I’ll receive after exposing these frauds overwhelms me. This is what it must feel like to leave a cult. You become scared of the reaction of the people that treated you so poorly and you become terrified of the repercussions of telling the truth. I know that when people read this, their first reaction will be to demonize me as a person and be critical of my hockey ability. I know that and I am okay with it. I’ve consistently made mistakes in my personal life, and I know that I didn’t make the NHL because I wasn’t good enough. Criticizing me doesn’t change what has happened to countless careers, and having this conversation will hopefully change the game for the better. Hockey has been hiding behind the hockey code for too long, and we were always told, What happens in the room stays in the room. Why did I want to protect the game so badly? I learned at 15 that it was normal to be shaved and to drink someone else’s bodily fluids. I learned at 17 that someone could yank on a skate lace attached to my genitals as hard as they wanted to because my body belonged to the team. I watched my first pornographic movie on a team bus with players masturbating all around me. What was abnormal behavior became routine. I was becoming a deviant and I didn’t even realize it. Spit on my back in the shower? No problem. Piss all over me when I’m shampooing, that’s hilarious. A rookie put shaving cream in your gloves? Go take a crap in his skates and stick around to watch his reaction.
I had no idea that the hockey code wasn’t normal until I entered the real world and got a job. I thought that other people were the weird ones. I was a great kid with fantastic parents and I entered the real hockey world as a naïve 13-year-old. It took me 20 years and three of my own kids to realize that the adults involved were the ones who failed me. I can remember sitting in my room in the basement of my billet’s house in the Soo, sobbing, listening to the domestic abuse going on upstairs, and trying to forget about my failure and disappointments as a hockey player. I’d let down my parents, my coach, and everyone who ever beloved in me. I did not have access to a phone in my room and I was deeply depressed, isolated in the basement. I wanted my life to end. I wanted to erase my pain, and I didn’t want it to continue. Eliminating myself would end the throbbing headaches that I was having every day after the numerous mismanaged concussions.
What I Like About “Conflicted Scars”: Davis pulls no punches and doesn’t leave out any of the grisly details — whether it is specifics about how his teammates hazed him, to the bad contracts that most major junior hockey players are signed to.
What I Do Not Like About “Conflicted Scars”: There is nothing to dislike — other than what Davis had to endure during his days of playing hockey, all in the name of “fitting in” and being accepted by his teammates. While not necessary for his story, a few photos from Davis’ career would have been nice, even if they were in black and white.
“Conflicted Scars” is an eye-opening, many times shocking, look at the life of a major junior hockey player and how truly messed up hockey culture is — from routine hazing by teammates to being pressed into playing while dealing with injuries. At the top of the book’s front cover, future Hall of Fame NHL player Joe Thornton states “Justin’s book should be on the shelf of every hockey parent.” He is correct. “Conflicted Scars” is not an easy book to read, but that very much makes it a book worth reading.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■