Has hockey hazing changed in 40 years? At least people now 'being held accountable,' says former player

Todd Tisdale says he suffered abuse at the hands of his older hockey teammates when he was the same age as some of the boys in southwestern Manitoba who now allege they were sexually assaulted during trips to Winnipeg for hockey tournaments.

'Don't just hide it inside,' Todd Tisdale says after RCMP arrest 3 teens for alleged assault of teammates

A boy in a red hockey uniform and skates sits on a bench.
Todd Tisdale is pictured in an old hockey photo. (Submitted by Todd Tisdale)

WARNING: This article contains descriptions of abuse and sexual violence.

Todd Tisdale says he suffered abuse at the hands of his older hockey teammates when he was the same age as some of the boys in southwestern Manitoba who now allege they were sexually assaulted during trips to Winnipeg for hockey tournaments.

"It's not right that this happens in our hockey culture. Something has to change, and it has to change quickly," said Tisdale, who alleges that he was abused by teammates at a Saskatchewan boarding school nearly 40 years ago.

On Tuesday, Manitoba RCMP said three 17-year-olds were arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting five younger teammates, ages 15 and 16, in Winnipeg hotel rooms in November and January.

The alleged assaults were reported to police in February, and police arrested the alleged abusers within months — a marked change from Tisdale's experience 40 years ago.

Tisdale didn't report the abuse he says he suffered until he had a nervous breakdown at 24.

"I actually went to the police and pressed charges. Nothing ever happened with that, but at least I had it out there," he told Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Thursday.

"I think it's great that people are being held accountable for what they do."

A man smiles at a camera in a selfie.
Tisdale alleges he suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse from other students in hazing rituals while attending boarding school. (Submitted by Todd Tisdale)

The abuse Tisdale says he suffered left both mental and physical scars. That includes scarring on his genitals, which had a shoestring tied around them that was then used in a tug-of-war with another rookie whose genitals were tied to the other end, he alleges.

He also says he was choked, whipped on the forehead with a leather belt and forced to eat macaroni made with urine.

Tisdale is suing the school, which he claims failed to protect him, and a man he alleges was one of the perpetrators of the abuse.

"It was an old-boy tradition," he said. 

"The younger boys wanted to be there for a year, so they could be vetted in and become an old boy, and unfortunately, that's a systemic problem."

Psychologist Susan Lipkins, who has studied hazing for decades, calls it "the blueprint of hazing."

"You just want to be part of the group or the team, and you're hazed, and then the next year you watch as other people get hazed," Lipkins told Faith Fundal on CBC Manitoba's Up To Speed on Wednesday.

"Eventually, you're the senior person, and you think you have the right and the duty to pass on that tradition."

Coaches must be model

Lipkins said people in sports cultures have to choose to change the blueprint together — and it's not just the responsibility of young perpetrators and victims.

"The coaches have to be the model" and "set up a method of running a team that doesn't allow these kind of traditions to continue," she said.

"If that means then you have no away games or you don't go to a hotel or you don't sleep over if I can't supervise you appropriately, then you don't do it."

Jay Johnson, a University of Manitoba sociology professor who has researched hazing for more than 30 years, said hazing is still viewed as an important tradition by some teams.

"They've been practising some form of hazing ritual for a long period of time," he told Radio Noon host Janet Stewart on Wednesday.

In fact, hazing has connections to coming-of-age rituals that have been practised by cultures around the world for centuries, he said.

"We have rites of passages and rituals to make those different transitions in life," he said.

Traditions can change

The idea is to bring a community or team closer together, he said, and that's why he doesn't believe teams have to completely eradicate any sort of rookie ritual.

"I believe that it's really important for teams to have something to mark that transition for their new members," he said. "It's always been the ways that they do it that misses the mark."

Johnson has taken people for team-building exercises like canoe trips instead.

"If your teammates can't look you in the eye and answer all of those questions to how this brings us closer together, how this will make us perform better as a team … then you really have to question what you're doing," he said.

"There are different ways to get there."

It does seem that in Canada, people are starting to feel they can speak out about hazing, he said.

"Over the last 10 years it's been driven underground. There's no coaches present" when hazing happens, he said.

Parents can help prevent hazing by having conversations with their kids, listening to what they're saying and providing opportunities to share, Johnson said.

Hockey life stolen

As for Tisdale, he wants young players who have been abused to know that he started healing when he started talking about what happened.

"Look for your support, your key support — your immediate family, your family, your friends — and lean on them and talk about it. Don't just hide it inside," he said.

"It makes a difference to talk about it."

The abuse changed the course of Tisdale's life. He comes from a hockey family — his older brother played in the NHL — and he'd thought of pursuing a career in coaching.

"It robbed me of a life of hockey. I used to really enjoy hockey," he said.

He's finally starting to rediscover that joy.

"It was only recently, four or five months ago, that I got back on skates, and it was extremely emotional for me."

For anyone who has been sexually assaulted, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services via the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. Young people can get 24/7 mental health support from Kids Help Phone.

With files from Issa Kixen and Wendy Parker