I can still remember the first time I ever played organized hockey. My dad and I stumbled into the Lucan Memorial Arena, carrying my TPS rubber stick that I had found in a garbage can and a large cardboard box full of second hand equipment. I was seven and I had never set foot in an arena. The backyard rinks were all I had ever known and for the first time, hockey pushed my boundaries. My father, Brian, was American and didn’t know a thing about hockey. We struggled to figure out what piece of equipment went where, and had it not been for the help of another player’s dad, I may never have made my first tryout. From that point on, the learning experiences were endless. I made the competitive team my first year and began a journey that would ultimately change my life. The decision to play hockey was not a hard one for me. I was Canadian, and hockey is what Canadians did. My mother on the other hand took a little more convincing. She wasn’t sure about the commitment, physicality and nature of the sport and so my parents took their time before allowing me to pursue my dream of playing hockey. I remember my siblings and I getting up early to work on homework so we could walk over to our neighborhood rink where we’d spend hours on end mimicking our favorite hockey stars. The endless time spent on that outdoor rink, or playing mini sticks in the basement of our country home allowed our relationships to grow strong and these relationships, that I still cherish to this day, have kept me level headed through my early successes as a player and helped provide a positive outlook throughout my hockey career. My first two years of hockey yielded many privileges and successes that led to me being named the captain of the team and later landed me a spot at the Bells skills challenge in Toronto, ON. It was here where I would place seventh in Ontario competing against the best players in the nation such as future Calgary Flames defenseman Dougie Hamilton and NY Islanders forward Ryan Strome to name a few. These opportunities sparked my desire for the game of hockey and helped me strive for perfection in all areas of my young career.
Playing competitive hockey for the Lucan Fighting Irish not only was a constant learning experience on the ice, but also one that took many forms off the ice as well. Tournaments presented many uncomfortable situations, such as witnessing my nine-year-old teammates try alcohol for the first time. Being a part of a team meant becoming part of a hockey family and all of a sudden the values my biological family had taught me clashed with my hockey family and this battle would be one I had to balance for the rest of my hockey career. My eyes were opened to a reality I never knew existed and so my innocent, sheltered self began to face the harsh realities of the hockey world. Having my family to support me through these new experiences helped me to keep a positive perspective on hockey.
After two successful years playing in Lucan, I took the next step tried out for a AAA team, the Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs. It was here where I would spend the next five years of my life, playing under two different coaches and experience many different teammates. I worked hard over these years and was named an assistant captain on a team filled with talent such as NHL star Boone Jenner, and AHL forward Derek Mathers to name a few. It was an honor, to say the least, and also led to me having the opportunity to represent Team Ontario overseas in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden. My success as a hockey player continued as I was named one of the top five defensemen to watch at the OHL cup with the OHL draft right around the corner. After a successful OHL cup tournament and minor midget year I was fortunate enough to be drafted by my hometown team, the London knights in the second round of the 2009 OHL draft. I tell you these successes, not to brag about this stage of my life but rather to show you the side that most people would’ve seen of me over these years. Hockey was my identity! It was something to which I was beginning to be known. What people didn’t always see was the other side of me.
Along with the good of hockey, came a whole lot of bad. Tough situations both on and off the ice that changed me as a person and although I won’t be able to share them all, I would like to walk you through a couple. These five years of my life came during the high school years and I struggled like anyone to find my identity as a person. Adding hockey on top of being a teenage student made many areas of my life tougher. Hockey led me to attend four different high schools making it hard for me to build relationships that were of any substance. I was a gypsy! As soon as I started to feel comfortable in a situation, it seemed I was forced to leave and attend another school. Don’t get me wrong, I met many great people over these years (many of whom I still keep up with) but it’s tough to jump into friend groups that have been together for several years already. As I said earlier, the hockey team is like a family, and just as families have struggles, so did my teammates who I was surrounded by daily. In all facets of society today, the typical ideology of sex, drugs and rock n roll runs rampant. However, for those of you who don’t know, these are amplified in the hockey world. I began to realize this at the age of twelve as my teammates were already experiencing and trying chewing tobacco, swearing in every sentence, watching porn, drinking excessively and getting girls naked on webcam. By the age of fourteen, drug use began to be factor, guys were having sex now and alcohol and partying was a common way of life. For a guy that was homeschooled, all these influences took a toll on me. Being a Christian and having grown up in a Christian home meant that the way I was trying to live my life didn’t seem to line up with anything I was coming into contact with. I noticed my language would change, as did my attitude towards my parents. It was also with my teammates where I watched porn for the first time and that moment is burned into my mind. Unfortunately, I can still remember exactly where I was and exactly what was on the screen. Not exactly what you want to have on your mind when you marry the girl of your dreams some day is it? Although I never succumbed to the influences that the hockey world presented me with, I was definitely changed by them. I was honestly shell shocked by the reality in which I was living. The daunting task of trying to impress my coach while attempting to fit in with my teammates left me overwhelmed and unhappy. I wanted to quit hockey, and had it not been for my agent at the time, Todd Christie, and my parents, my career might have ended right then. However, this is not the end of my story but rather a chapter in which I had to make some very tough decisions that would ultimately impact my life forever. My mentality, innocence, and outlook on life were all dramatically affected and changed throughout these five years. It was through these “sticky” situations I struggled with the question; to be a hockey player, do you have to be a part of that lifestyle?
This question continued to haunt me as I set foot on the ice for my first season of junior hockey. All of a sudden I was making some money playing the game I loved. I was the second highest London kid ever drafted to the London Knights at the time other than Robbie Drummond and to a degree this notoriety went to my head. When the press, media, agents and girls are all seemingly invested in who you are, it’s easy to think that you’re the best thing ever to walk the green earth. The truth is, the grass is always greener for those guys and girls. There will always be a better player and the reality is, unless you are the best hockey player around, you’re not always going to be in the spotlight. If you don’t live up to the coaches standards one day, you could possibly be traded the next. One of the first challenges I faced in junior hockey was rookie party and partying in general. Typically most of the guys on the team are from out of town and are living on their own without anyone telling them what they can or cannot do. Give any teenager control over most aspects of their life and the outcomes usually aren’t good. Add in free money, girls and popularity and the likelihood of bad decisions is endless. I made the decision to seclude myself from the partying side of the team and didn’t attend any team events outside of the rink and this was partly due to the fact that I still lived at home and had responsibilities around the house or with my family. My parents and agent had fought so hard to have me drafted to London in the first place, because they weren’t comfortable with the idea of me living away from home at the age of 16. As a result of my decision I began to feel distant from the team. While I was feeling this way, the learning curve of playing hockey at the OHL level was also taking a toll on me. I was expected to be at the rink for at least 2 hours every single day from September till April except for a couple days off at Christmas. During the time at the rink you have numerous coaches constantly telling you what to do on the ice, in the gym, and watching video of yourself from previous games. I didn’t play much my first year and this was an eye opener for me. For the first time, I wasn’t the best player on the team. I wasn’t the go to guy I now had to prove my existence on a team filled with players up to four years older then me. As a result, my first year was filled with many unforeseen challenges. The pressures off the ice and the challenges of performing at high level on the ice took a toll on me.
It was in the middle of this pressure that I decided to go on a summer mission’s trip to Trujillo, Peru with some young people from the Church I attended, West London Alliance. Our mission? To build an orphanage for children living in the city dump that would provide them with food and water along with a proper education and meaning to life. This trip touched me in many ways I never thought possible (Mission Peru Interview Link). To see people happy while having nothing challenged the way I looked at life. A challenge that would ultimately be brought to the forefront of my life come the beginning of my second year in the OHL. In our first exhibition game against the Plymouth Whalers, I was involved in a fluke accident that resulted in the complete tear of the ACL in my right knee. The prognosis? Season ending surgery that meant missing my entire NHL draft year. My dreams of playing in the NHL had suddenly taken a turn for the worst and the outlook I had always tried to live by was now rocked at the core. That summer I had learned that happiness is not a product of circumstances, but rather a choice. The Peruvians chose happiness when they had nothing, what would I do? I remember breaking down and crying in my mother’s arms in the parking lot of Budweiser Garden’s as I let out all the pain and sadness that had been bottled up inside of me. I was broken both emotionally and physically and was faced with the same choice I had witnessed while serving in South America. From that point onwards I chose happiness as I realized that God had a plan and as much as I wanted to make the decisions concerning my life, it just wasn’t a privilege I was given.
I spent the rest of the year and following summer in rehabilitation and preparing for my third OHL season. After talks with my agent, we decided that a trade was in my best interest and Belleville, ON was where I was headed. I was now 18 and living on my own without my parents for the first time. I was blessed with a great billet family, the Yearwood’s, who shared the same Christian beliefs as I did and provided me with a fantastic home away from home. With a new town came new teammates, new friends, and a new life essentially. Although, hockey provided structure to my daily life, what I did in my spare time was now completely up to me. I didn’t have mom asking me to do the laundry or have the responsibility of picking up my sister from school. I started hanging with the guys on my team more and girls always seemed to be a topic of discussion. As a result of being an OHL player, girls tend to give you more attention and as an 18-year-old guy it’s tough to balance that and keep a level head. Although I wasn’t sleeping with girls, I still made some decisions I regret to this day. I had downloaded Tinder, which is essentially an online dating app for your phone that everyone on my team had. I did this partially as a joke, but also because I enjoyed the attention I would get from the local girls along with the confidence that it gave me. In hindsight I realized how shallow this was, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do and all of my teammates were doing it too. My years in Belleville were the first in which I was exposed to living on my own, but it was also a time in which my hockey career took new strides. I had three successful seasons in Belleville, including my final year where I was named an assistant captain (Belleville Bulls Interview Link). My last year of hockey was my most successful in the OHL and led to a pro opportunity overseas in Russia as well as the opportunity to attend an NHL camp. However, a separated shoulder near the end of that season would end my hopes of playing professional hockey the next year and send me back to the surgeon’s table. That summer I had shoulder surgery and another knee surgery and made the executive decision to use the scholarship money provided by the OHL and go to university.
The next stage of picking a university proved challenging as school was now a factor and not just hockey. Once again, I was considered a “big deal” for my hockey abilities and universities were flying me out to visit, paying all my expenses and offering additional money for me to be a part of their program. It was during this process that I got drunk for the first time. In a nutshell, I did this because I wanted to fit in. For the hockey culture, this was just normality. You work hard throughout the week, play your games and then celebrate even harder on the weekends. I had secluded myself from this lifestyle in London, had compromised myself a bit in Belleville, and now I felt the need to fit in once and for all. I wanted to be the best player on the team, who was also the most popular. Doesn’t everyone strive to be that though? Deep down inside, everyone at any stage of life or success has the urging desire to be wanted, loved and popular. The reality is, to be considered cool in the hockey world, meant compromising who I ultimately had always wanted to be. My two worlds clashed once again, but it was through the next step of choosing Western University, returning to my hometown of London, ON, that I was faced with the opportunity of a fresh start.
As I prepared to suit up for my first season of hockey and first semester of school at Western, some things surprised me. The sex, drugs, and rock n roll I have talked about previously were still rampant. I guess I should’ve seen this coming as partying is part of the university culture, but it still came as a shock to me. In the OHL there are drug testing procedures but that had never stopped my teammates from partaking in marijuana and other recreational drug use. Although drugs were never a tempting thing for me, girls and partying, on the other hand, were. Just like being in the OHL, girls seem to love hockey players, even varsity hockey players. Every class I was in, I was recognized and social media seemed to exacerbate this through things like Instagram and Twitter. In all honesty, I liked the attention from girls and enjoyed the idea of going to the bar and getting attention from people who recognized me. My popularity was in the identity hockey gave me as opposed to the character and person I was striving to be. As partying and going to the bar became a usual thing for the hockey team, I found a way to balance the two worlds of which I was trying to be a part. I was able to be the regular designated driver, which provided me with an opportunity to still be a part of the team while not feeling the need to drink. For the first time, I was able to merge the two contradicting worlds I was so immersed in. The hockey season provided me with an opportunity to play a big role on the team and continue to develop my game.
After a successful first year, the potential to play pro hockey still lingered in the back of my mind. It was something I had always dreamed of, just had never been able to accomplish as a result of my timely injuries. Therefore, that summer I put in a lot of time and effort into being in the best shape of my life going into my second year. Before I knew it, the year had begun. No sooner had it begun for me, it was also abruptly ended. I took a dangerous hit in our first preseason game that resulted in a serious concussion. As a result of this concussion, I was advised by several specialists to hang up my skates from the game I love, because if I sustained another head injury I would probably have permanent cognitive damage.
It was my sixth concussion and brings me to where I am now, my retirement from the game. Looking back at the journey of growing up playing on backyard ponds, to playing for your local small town, to playing AAA and eventually getting drafted to the OHL team you grew up watching, the London Knights. To playing five years in the OHL between two cities before returning to London once more to where this concussion would shatter a pro contract and bring me to this point in my life. The ponds where I once began playing hockey are now where I return, and the lessons I learned during the journey that began there, have come full circle as well. I share my story not to bring glory to my successes or to highlight my failures, but rather as a real life example to those families who are considering putting their children in hockey or sports and want a perspective from someone who’s been in their shoes. Hockey provided structure to my life, taught me the concept of hard work, gave me friendships, paid for my schooling and gave me a perspective on life that I may have never experienced otherwise. Along with the good things hockey provided, the injuries, the language, the morals, the drugs and alcohol that came with the game, also greatly impacted my life in a negative way. Hockey can be a part of your identity, but not all of it. My story highlights the importance of staying true to who you are and in my case, the faith that is so much a part of my life. My parents and I began this journey clueless in several areas. From learning how to put on equipment to learning how to live the hockey lifestyle in a way that we felt was respectable, the learning experiences were endless. Had it not been for my faith in Jesus Christ, I can truly say that I think my life could’ve taken a much different course. I am so grateful for the role of the organization, Hockey Ministries International, and their representatives Jamie Ramer and Bruce Mackay. These men became friends and mentors who would continually challenge me as I grew through hockey, life and my relationship with Jesus. I truly believe God placed me where I was because he had a purpose for me then and in the same way, I believe he’s removed me from hockey because he has a different purpose for me now. My life is not over because I’ve finished playing hockey, but rather it’s just simply headed in a different direction. Some of you are reading this article and maybe deciding whether or not to play hockey or are maybe facing some of the challenges I’ve talked about, I hope you consider some of the things that I’ve discussed, whether you’re a believer in Christ or not. Hockey is just a game, but it has the ability to impact each and every aspect of you or your child’s life.
For me, hockey will always be a part of my life, but will no longer be my identity.