As Canadians we never tire of sharing our favourite hockey stories, whether they be memories of when we played hockey ourselves or of when our favourite team won the Stanley Cup.
But in recent years the game has shown a darker side as stories of abuse - physical, mental, emotional or sexual - have come to light.
These stories have become part of what is now called ‘the hockey culture.’
When Justin Davis - a former Soo Greyhound forward - began to write his memoirs, dark stories from his own experience in that culture came back to haunt him.
Davis is a Burlington native whose OHL career was spent in Kingston, Sault Ste. Marie and Ottawa.
Despite the book's title - Conflicted Scars: An Average Player’s Journey to the NHL - Davis's talent was evident in the OHL.
When the Ottawa 67s won the Memorial Cup in 1999, he led the tournament in scoring. He was drafted by the NHL’s Washington Capitals in 1996, but never played an NHL game, instead playing in the university ranks, in Europe and with Senior AAA teams.
Hockey took a toll on his body and spirit. That included his days as a Hound and the injuries suffered in the Sault impact his life now.
Davis suffered several concussions during his playing days and has suffered from headaches, depression and some memory loss.
“I was afraid that 15 years down the line I wouldn’t remember a lot of my career so with my kids getting older I thought I’d write this memoir,” Davis said.
“I wrote this book as a memoir for my kids, that nobody else was supposed to read, but it somehow got picked up by a literary agent and a publisher, so maybe I’m here for a reason, to help with the hockey culture and what’s going on right now.”
Davis suffered a severe concussion while playing with the Greyhounds in 1997 during a road game against the Plymouth Whalers.
Davis said the team delayed in getting him fast and proper medical treatment at a hospital in Detroit.
“I got knocked out and had bleeding on the brain. They tried to bring me from a hospital in Detroit into Canada. The Soo Greyhounds tried to bill my family for the medical expenses because they didn’t want to pay the U.S. medical bills.”
The billing issue was settled by Davis’s agent.
“My parents called Allan Walsh, who was my agent at the time. Allan was great,” Davis recalled.
“At the time I was a third line winger on the team. I think if it had been a first line player they would’ve rushed him to the hospital. That’s why I’m writing from the perspective of the average player. We need to remember an injured player may not be the best player on the team, but they're all kids and all need help if injured.”
Some hardships had nothing to do with on-ice injuries.
As a 17-year-old playing with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs in the 1995-96 season, Davis and six other players were forced to take part in a ‘hot box’ hazing ritual.
Naked, their clothes tied into a ball, they were all forced into the small washroom at the back of the team’s bus to try to put their clothes back on and get out as quickly as possible.
Davis started playing hockey when he was five and was often away from home while playing in the OHL.
He found himself trapped in that unpleasant part of hockey culture.
“You don’t have that influence of parents. Your team is your family. The abnormal becomes normal. When you’re in the hot box and you’re in the back of the bus you think it’s a normal rite of passage to stand with six other guys naked in the bus bathroom,” Davis told SooToday.
Another part of his troubled years as an OHL player included his involvement with teammates in an off-ice incident involving a paintball gun.
“It’s not until you step away and enter another world that you realize that stuff isn’t normal,” Davis said.
Now a 44-year-old married father of three and working as a high school teacher in Guelph, Davis has written his story and released it in a the book.
Whether it involves putting an end to abuse or proper attention paid to concussions, Davis said his approach in writing his book is that “the culture aspect needs to be cleaned up and we need to put people in place that have some accountability and we need to stop doing things that we did in the past. We need to bring in new faces and new voices. That’s the only way things change.”
“The hot box and other hazing incidents are no longer allowed, but the Kyle Beach sexual assault incident with the Chicago Blackhawks happened in 2010 and then there was the Hockey Canada incident in London in 2018 so that’s very discouraging. I thought this was over, but I guess it isn't and we have to deal with this.”
Apart from his job as a high school teacher, Davis has volunteered for the last 14 years as a chapel leader with Hockey Ministries International - a Christian organization - in helping hockey players who are troubled or who just need to chat.
“It’s totally voluntary for players who want to attend. We talk about life. It’s a format where kids can talk,” Davis said.
“There's some accountability and that’s what people need. I had a former player reach out to me two days ago. He said he needed to talk so we talked on the phone for 30 minutes, which is why I’m here. I’ve been through it all. I didn’t have people to talk to, so I think my journey has taken me to this point.”
“I participate in the chapel, I’m a player mentor, and there’s also a police officer in Guelph who is a former player so if something happens to a player or if something’s going on they can reach out to us independently of the coach and GM and that’s a huge resource.”
“People have been sharing their stories with me, of what happened to them. It’s been a good opportunity for them to start talking. I think that’s been a good thing to come out of it. In hockey it’s unemotional and you’re told not to talk, so it’s allowed people to share their stories and deal with some things they’re currently dealing with.”
Davis said despite his experiences, he’s not angry.
Instead, he’s there to listen and help bring about change in the hockey culture.
“I’m not out to get everybody. I’m not trying to get any money or fame from this. I just want to use my platform to be able to help bring about change.”
“Hockey is supposed to be teaching kids how to be a good teammate and we’re trying to generate NHLers from the time they’re six years old and the culture gets mixed up with it unfortunately.”