In the black-and-white photo, three-year-old Todd Tisdale is striking that familiar hockey pose: leaning forward, staring into the camera, chin tipped in feigned confidence. It doesn’t matter that the stick he’s holding is curved the wrong way, that he’s wearing winter gloves and not hockey gloves, that his helmet is four sizes too big and cuffs of his hockey pants are drooping over his striped socks.
Considering what has happened since it was taken, the photograph – a highlight of an album in Tisdale’s mom’s house in Medicine Hat, Alta. – now serves as a stark reminder of how hockey culture’s darker side can turn joyful promise into sour reality for a hockey dreamer.
Tisdale’s early experiences in the sport mirror those of many Canadians. Not only did he play, he also spent many weekends piling into the car with his family, making road trips around Saskatchewan and other parts of Western Canada to watch his older brother, Tim. The game taught him dedication and commitment, among other things.
“Hockey, to me, is life,” said Tisdale, 51, over the phone from Rimbey, Alta. “I grew up in a hockey rink.
“Hockey and my family go hand-in-hand.”
But for Tisdale, that love for the game was not returned.
Tisdale says that in 1986, while a 15-year-old first-year player at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a Christian school in Wilcox, Sask., he was subject to weeks of sexual, physical and mental abuse as a part of hazing rituals that eventually forced him to quit the game – and changed him forever. His lawsuit against the school in 2018 is currently awaiting a mediation hearing date. (The allegations have not been heard in court.)
Hazing, known in some regions as “initiation,” has long been a part of hockey culture. Some who have played at a competitive level recount stories of hazing as a rite of passage after making the big team, part of the process of being accepted into the tight circle that can be a hockey team. Shaving of heads or body hair was common. In more extreme situations, some OHL rookies and younger players, for instance, would be subjected to the “hot box” – naked, clothes tied into a ball, they were all forced into the washroom at the back of the team bus to try to put their clothes back on and get out as quickly as possible.
For Tisdale, he says his hazing involved, among other things, random and surprise beatings, being whipped by wet towels, being forced to eat pasta boiled in urine, tug-of-wars between two players with shoelaces tied around their genitals, and the “hall slide.”
For the hall slide, which Tisdale was reminded of recently while talking to former Notre Dame students, first-year players would mop the dorm hallway with soap and water. Then, forced to strip, they would have to run and slide on their stomachs or backs down the hallway while the older players whipped them with coat hangers or wet towels from open doorways.
“They say they’re trying to test you,” Tisdale said. “I think it was just to demean you, belittle you, and make you feel like a piece of dirt.”
This behaviour, these initiations, had been endured by many over several decades and seen by former players such as Tisdale as examples of “hockey culture.”
“It is broken,” Tisdale said. “We need to definitely overhaul hockey culture. We need to start the talk.”
With his pending lawsuit against Notre Dame, Tisdale is doing his part to spur that discussion. In his statement of claim, filed in 2018 and amended in 2022 to include an additional defendant, a fellow former student, he says the school failed in its supervision and protection of him and others in its role as guardian.
The school subsequently filed a statement of defence, denying all allegations. In a statement sent on behalf of president Rob Palmarin to Sportsnet, the college acknowledged the lawsuit and said, “The college is waiting to hear from Mr. Tisdale’s lawyer in order to proceed to the next step. The lawsuit is still before the court. Notre Dame cannot comment further on this matter publicly at this time as the lawsuit is still underway.” The college did not respond to a question about what steps the administration has taken to change the hockey culture at the school since the alleged incidents.
Tisdale is seeking financial compensation for the injuries he suffered while at the school. Among other consequences, in addition to struggling with mental health issues into his 20s, he says he has “major trust issues.” His lawyer, Spencer Edwards, expects a mediation date to be set by both parties in the coming weeks and for a hearing to be held in late October.
Now, as a de facto spokesman for survivors of abuse connected to the game, Tisdale has added his voice to the chorus calling for the resignation of new Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith. Smith has been with that organization since 1995 and taken the brunt of the criticism over its handling of a lawsuit filed by a woman saying she was sexually assaulted in 2018 after a Hockey Canada gala event by eight CHL players, some of whom were members of the 2018 Canadian world junior team. Similar allegations have also arisen against the 2003 Canadian world junior team.
“When the ship goes down, the captain goes down with it,” said Tisdale, an installation and repair tech in the telecommunications industry. “It’s mind-boggling. I can’t believe the audacity of some of these Hockey Canada executives to stay on after they know the public of Canada does not want them there. They’re still hanging on to these positions. It needs to start with Scott Smith.”
Tisdale blames hockey culture for what happened to him in Wilcox all those years ago. The sport’s silent code dictated that younger players had to run through a gauntlet of some sort in order to be deemed worthy of a spot on the team.
“It 100 per cent contributed to what happened to me there,” he said. “Hockey players did the abuse to me. I went to Notre Dame to become a better hockey player — and I was hazed because of it.
“The culture’s very sick, in a way. When I tell my story, it’s been 35 years for me, so I can kind of take it with a grain of salt. It’s my story, it happened to me. When I tell people, when people read my story, they’re absolutely horrified by what happened to me. I don’t see it as that much of a big deal anymore — but it is, it’s a huge deal and we need to keep talking about this, we need to keep talking about hockey culture. It needs to change and change now.
“This is definitely a pivotal time for someone or a group of people to step up and change the way these kids think.”