In the summer of 2003, not long after Gene Chiarello turned 24 and had finished his third year of playing hockey and attending school at the University of New Brunswick, doctors discovered a tumor on his brain stem. In his first surgical procedure, he had a scope inserted in his nose in an effort to eradicate the tumor. In his first post-operative appointment, a Toronto oncologist told Chiarello that the tumor had grown back and was even bigger than original one and instructed him to go home to Sault Ste. Marie for palliative care. He endured six months of intense chemotherapy where he rarely left the hospital, then underwent a nine-hour surgical procedure where doctors cut from the corner of his eyebrow down the side of his nose and peeled the nose over so they could remove the dead remains of the tumor. Chiarello missed a full year of school, but returned and played his last year before going on to teacher’s college and later, law school.
It sounds like a harrowing experience. But consider that in the affidavit Chiarello filed in the Canadian Hockey League hazing/abuse proposed class-action lawsuit launched by Dan Carcillo and Garrett Taylor, he talked about his rookie season of 1996-97 with the London Knights this way: “Psychologically, this abusive behavior was even more confusing and damaging than the experience of a year-long fight with brain cancer in my mid-20s.”
Chiarello is quick to point out that his experience playing in the Ontario League was, on balance, a positive one. He played four years, then took advantage of the league’s education package to attend university. He even said that if his son becomes a promising hockey player, he would have no issues with him playing in the league. But it was that first year where he and the other Knights rookies were subject to such constant and random abuse that he very nearly quit the game he loved. And the difference between the cancer and the abuse was that with the cancer, he at least knew when difficult times were coming. Not so with the abuse.
“I just thought it was so confusing that, ‘Here I am, I’m good enough to be here,’ ” Chiarello told TheHockeyNews.com. “I and my rookie teammates should be welcomed and it was quite the opposite. I just thought it was so counterproductive to what we were all trying to accomplish. I mean, how does that foster any sort of team cohesiveness or team chemistry? It just doesn’t. To be on a bus going to a road game and to be thrown into the lavatory with no clothes on and then show up at a road game and have all of us pull the same jersey over our heads and be a team, it was just a real confusing time.”
On Monday in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, 14 additional affidavits were filed by former players claiming varying degrees of abuse in the Ontario and Western Leagues, particularly during their rookie seasons. When you compare Chiarello’s experience to some of the others, he got off relatively lightly. But there were three events that Chiarello highlighted. Two of them, the infamous ‘hot box’ or ‘sweat box’ and the rookie party, were common to almost all of them.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term, the ‘hot box’ occurs when all the rookies are thrown into the washroom on the bus together naked. Their clothing is taped together in a ball and none are allowed out of the bathroom until they’ve untangled the ball and gotten dressed. Chiarello and other plaintiffs highlighted rookie parties where first-year underage players were forced to drink to excess. At the rookie party that season, the rookies were mandated to donate their first $80 paycheck, which represented two weeks pay, to buy liquor for the event. Chiarello said in his affidavit that at one point in the evening, one of the rookies went missing and was later found passed out in a tree, “sitting on a branch while leaning his upper body up against the tree trunk. He was perched at least 10 feet in the air, which could have resulted in a severe injury if he would have fallen to the ground if unconscious.”
Chiarello also talked about something called, ‘the pit’, where a rookie would be called to the back of the bus, then would be covered in blankets and repeatedly punched by veteran players.
When hockey players often talk about teammates, and even opponents occasionally, they often refer to them as family or a brotherhood. Reading the affidavits that were filed in this lawsuit, it’s difficult to imagine anyone would treat a brother or other family member this badly. “I don’t know when or how that became normalized,” said Chiarello, who serves as in-house counsel for a company in London. “When I was a veteran, my first instinct was to sit beside (rookies) on the bus and say, ‘Welcome to the team. Hey, where are you from, what position do you play, what’s your family about?’ Make them feel welcome and part of the team and, ‘By the way, you might want to carry my bag into the rink for me, rookie.’ Harmless things like that.”
In his affidavit, Chiarello said that it would have been impossible for the Knights coaching staff to have not known what was transpiring when the abuse was perpetrated on the bus. But former NHLer Brad Selwood, who was the Knights coach for Chiarello’s first season in London, said that was precisely the case. “Every team I ever coached, I said up front the first time I ever laid eyes on them, ‘Hazing will not be tolerated and if it happens to you, tell us and we’ll deal with it immediately,’ ” Selwood said. “I have absolutely no knowledge of it. Paul McIntosh (now a pro scout with the Dallas Stars) was our GM at the time and he and I agreed to not tolerate it ever. I know nothing about what he’s claiming.”
Selwood, who went on to become GM of the Oshawa Generals and has been a fixture in minor hockey circles in Toronto, was fired by the team in February of that season, right around the same time Chiarello went to Knights owner Doug Tarry Jr., and told him that he intended on quitting the team and returning home because of the constant abuse from the veterans. McIntosh took the team over for the rest of that season, and then the Knights hired Gary Agnew, whom Chiarello said was a stabilizing influence with the organization.
For the record, Chiarello pointed out that he has never met or spoken to Dan Carcillo and is aware he can be a polarizing figure in the hockey world. But he joined the lawsuit to try to effect change and if his experience is any indication, serious change is necessary. “I thought, ‘Support this guy because there are other people in that same situation,’ ” Chiarello said. “Even though we’ve never met and we’ve never spoken, I don’t doubt a word that he says in the stories he recounted. I didn’t experience those same things, per se, myself nor did the teammates that I played with, to that level, but listening to what he had to say and reading what he had to say, I have no doubt that it was true.”