His mother says he "owns" any room he walks into, and perhaps this is not merely a mother's musings. All eyes - particularly those of the young women and the waitresses - are on Carson Shields as he strides into this restaurant in the upscale River Heights neighbourhood of Winnipeg.
He has chosen the restaurant well - Inferno's - given he is coming from his own personal hell.
Tall, blond, wide-shouldered and clear-eyed, he wears a shirt so crisp and white it brightens the room as much as his smile. Peel back the shirt, however, and you will see the tattoos that seem bizarrely out of place with such a pristine first impression.
"Fortune favours the brave" is writ large across his chest, a decision made one frenetic day after being high on cocaine for the previous two. Down his right arm is tribal art, on his left scripture adapted from the book of Acts: "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet." Near his right elbow is a large diamond, inked at a time when he thought he held the secret to forever living the good life ... presuming he lived.
The diamond excepted, he has no regrets concerning the tattoos. "They are a road map from where I was to where I am today," he says.
And where he is today is also there for the reading: three softer tattoos that speak to the great dichotomy that is Carson Shields.
On the outside of that arm is a rose, with his goddaughter Emersyn's name beside it. The tribal art on the right arm is the Cantonese love symbol with the name of another goddaughter, Loevah, beneath. Hidden on the inside of the left arm, inked inside a burning cross, are the names of his parents, Larry and Carol.
There is no body art to show the trauma he and his parents believe so profoundly affected his life: a humiliating junior hockey hazing that took place when he was barely a teenager.
It is far simpler to see what is behind the white shirt than to know what lies back of the pleasant face, the trusting eyes.
Peel that back and you will find a 25-year-old man deeply scarred by the sick side of the game he loved and still loves. You will find a happy boy from a good family in a good neighbourhood who became an alcoholic, a drug addict and, by his own admission, a criminal. You will see a tortured young man who finally hit rock bottom when, waiting outside a Winnipeg crack house for a drug-dealing buddy, he felt the cold metal of a 9-mm pistol pressed to his temple.
Carson Shields says he needs to tell his story. His mother says he needs to tell it to heal.
He needs to show how far he fell from the simple dream he was chasing, how dark it all became and how, today, he is sober and clean, back living at home, coaching the game that all but destroyed him and attending university - one benefit of which is help in paying for the anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and high-blood-pressure pills he takes each day.
"This story needs to be told," his father says. "I'm just sorry that it was my son had to go through it to have it written."
Too much we concentrate on the far-less-than-1-per-cent, the ones who make it. We forget, as we focus on the troubles experienced by certain NHL enforcers and fighters that, just as the talented players get funnelled tighter and tighter until there are but a precious few that move on, there are the tough ones, many of them, who just were not tough enough. They, too, get left behind.
Carson Shields was, by his own measure, an "average good hockey player." Good enough for junior, not good enough for major junior. He bounced around so much - traded, sold, dropped, picked up - his father nicknamed him "Suitcase."
Between 16 and 20, he played for an astonishing 10 junior A-, B- and C-level teams in four different provinces. He was rarely seen as the team "enforcer" but always regarded as the one big and tough player who never backed down, who would, as they say, die for his teammates and, in the end, very nearly did.
"I lost more fights than I won," he concedes.
He has no idea how many of either there were. He counts five concussions. He cannot bring his pinky fingers in line with his ring fingers. He sometimes throws out his shoulder in his sleep. His knee has never healed properly from an injury to his MCL. One psychiatrist determined he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the PTSD that haunts so many Canadian soldiers who have seen action in Afghanistan; another has diagnosed him with acute stress reaction.
He sometimes wakes in the morning with his shoulders and hands sore, knowing he has been "fighting" again in his sleep, pounding pillow, bedding, headboard. He has trouble being alone.
Carson Shields was born on the first day of spring in 1988. He was both the fourth child and, in a way, an only child, his parents having divorced their original partners years earlier and begun a new marriage when each already had a daughter. Full brother David is 14 years older. Carson was a welcome and warmly welcomed surprise.
Larry Shields had been a star halfback and rookie of the year in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League. With the University of Manitoba Bisons, he was a Western Conference all-star. In one faded clipping, head coach George Depres called Larry "the fiercest, most competitive player he had ever coached."
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers invited Larry to their CFL camp but the stark realities of life – a baby on the way – made teaching physical education in nearby Selkirk a more secure proposition. It was here, later, that Larry and Carol met.
In Winnipeg, the Shields lived in a good neighbourhood with good schools. Carson was an excellent student, winner of awards and admired by his teachers. He looked out for an autistic classmate in the schoolyard and picked up the nickname “the Friendly Giant” – the big-hearted kid who had time for everyone.
“He was a real joy as a child,” Larry says.
And he was mad for sports. His parents put him in tae kwon do to burn off his endless energy. Summers were spent at the family cabin on Lake of the Woods. In winter, the youngster took to hockey, with Larry determined not to be as pushy a hockey parent as he felt he had been with David a dozen years earlier.
Larry Shields had walked away from a possible football career and the experience had stuck with him. Even to this day, he sometimes has a nightmare in which he is running up a hill while everyone else in the dream is running right past him, leaving him behind.
“I didn’t want him to go through life wondering, ‘What if?’” Larry says.
Larry knew if he just sat in the stands he was still having an effect on his sensitive youngest child. Carson says, even from the first, he was acutely aware of even the slightest hand gesture or roll of the eyes from his father. There were tough rides home but never once, Carson says, did he doubt his father “loved me” and wanted only for the child to succeed.
At 10, Carson tried out for the AA Assiniboine Park Rangers and made the team. Jonathan Toews, now captain of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, was captain and best player. Frazer McLaren, now a hulking forward for the Toronto Maple Leafs, was also on the team.
“I was the worst player on the team,” Carson says, “ but we won everything. That was the last time I truly enjoyed going to the rink.”
He played for other minor hockey teams – captain on one – and went to the Kelowna Rockets camp after bantam, but could not make the WHL. He knew he had been invited to the camp because of his soaring penalty numbers, not his skill. Will, unfortunately, was not quite enough to crack a lineup that would go to the Memorial Cup.
“He was a boy with average abilities,” Larry says. “Not a star but a good, good teammate. He was willing to do whatever it takes to continue playing. And I wanted to support that – maybe too much so.”
Carson decided to play for the Kelvin High School team in Winnipeg, where he was coached by Bruce Sirrell, a physical education teacher at the school locals call “Hollywood High.” Carson captained the team.
Sirrell, now a lifelong friend, says Carson “was aces on the ice. He would listen. He never missed. There were never any issues apart from him one time leaving the bench to defend a teammate.”
Larry Shields also got involved with the high-school team, serving as parent manager. “He was the ideal hockey parent for us,” Sirrell says. “One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet in your life.”
And yet, Sirrell began hearing his captain, off the ice, was “a bit of a wild character – the one who had to be ‘The Guy’ at the parties.”
Because of his higher skills, Carson had made the team in Grade 10. The seniors introduced him to alcohol and he liked it. A lot. In the journal of his hockey years that he kept – now an expanding memoir entitled The Beauty he and friend Brandi Parnell hope to polish and publish – he wrote drinking made him funnier and people liked him more.
Certainly, most of the junior coaches he would play for liked him fine. He had skill enough, but more heart than most. He would do whatever it took to win, whatever it took to stay with the team.
It was early in his wandering junior hockey career – he would be a “rookie” on several teams – that he attended the hazing ritual that, he says, “haunts me to this day.”
The veterans on this particular team, mostly 18- to 20-year-olds, forced the handful of new players to strip naked in the street outside a house they had the use of one weekend. No coaches were involved; no team officials even knew it was taking place.
Carson knew he was being targeted for special treatment. He was new, big, brazen, and some of the veterans wanted to see him put in his place. The drinking that began early in high school had given him a bit of “wild” reputation that some teammates resented. He was first called to the gathering’s “court” and told to choose from six glasses of clear liquid. Once he chose the one containing only water, he would be freed.
He went through five glasses without finding water – he knew from the tastes that he had downed vodka, white rum and sambuca – and was told to drink the sixth anyway. It was gin.
The drinking went on until the rookies were completely inebriated. They were forced to do an “elephant walk” about the rooms: each rookie holding onto the testicles of the hunched-over rookie walking ahead of him.
Forced to drink even more, the rookies were then stuffed in a bare room where several vomited, one all over Carson. They were brought out and ordered to “bong” three beers each – chugging the entire contents at once. Before passing out, he remembers girls being brought up from downstairs, but then nothing …
In the days that passed, he heard from others how out of it he had been. He was told at least one veteran player had urinated on him. He found out that photographs had been taken of him in humiliating poses, pictures that to this day give him nightmares. He was shattered.
He remembers being in his car after he had learned the extent of the humiliating hazing. “I was thinking maybe I should just get into an accident – and end it all.”
Hockey Canada is crystal clear on its policy on hazing: It is forbidden. The organization that oversees minor hockey throughout Canada defines the act as “an initiation practice that may humiliate, demean, degrade, or disgrace a person regardless of location or consent of the participant(s).”
Penalties are severe – suspension, even expulsion.
For the past decade and more, Hockey Canada has tried to be active on the hazing issue with its “Speak Out” clinics and various online programs for athletes and their parents, as well as volunteers who become certified coaches, trainers and managers. But it cannot prevent young players from acting on their own, whether the “hazing” rituals involve something as harmless as singing a song in front of teammates or as harmful as what Carson Shields experienced.
Two years ago, in small-town Manitoba, the junior-A Neepawa Natives made a 15-year-old rookie “tug” across the room a water bottle that was tied to his scrotum. When this incident and others were reported by a team official who discovered what had taken place, the league moved to fine the team $5,000, suspend 16 players and suspend two coaches, one of whom had been the whistleblower. The RCMP investigated, but no charges were laid.
The message, Manitoba Junior Hockey League commissioner Kim Davis told the media, was “hazing is not acceptable.”
And yet it continues to exist, sometimes with dire consequences, in sports teams, bands, fraternity and sorority houses. An American survey taken nearly 15 years ago – before social media turned bullying into a rising social and political issue – found as many college- and university-level students, one in five, had been subjected to unacceptable, possibly-illegal hazings as had experienced what they considered a positive initiation.
The most notorious recent example of hazing occurred this fall in the NFL, when Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito, a 6-foot-3, 319-pound guard, launched a profane, racist and even threatening attack on young teammate Jonathan Martin. The appalling example of bullying left Martin fleeing the team and Incognito claiming the vicious text exchanges were misunderstood, that taken in the culture of the dressing room they were actually all about “friendship.”
Carson Shields believes no such thing. It is, pure and simple, bullying. And it is not done so much to initiate and welcome new young players to a group as it is to send out serious warning signals.
“You have 19- and 20-year-olds organizing this ‘party’ for 17-year-olds who are there to take a veteran’s job away,” he says. “So what’s he going to do? He doesn’t want that kid to take his spot. So he intimidates him.”
“I agree with him,” says Paul Carson, Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey development. “They mask this as being about ‘belonging’ through hazing. It’s bullying.”
“The culture is changing,” adds Todd Jackson, Hockey Canada senior manager in charge of safety. “We are seeing a shift but we’ve got to continue to push.”
Both Calgary-based Carson and Ottawa-based Jackson believe one key is parental awareness and involvement: monitoring off-ice team activities that involve their youngsters and communicating with the youngsters so they are aware hazing is unacceptable behaviour. They are especially concerned with the repercussions from such activity in the age of social media.
“The way the Internet is now,” Carson says, “it could have ruined my life.”
Even without Twitter and Facebook, it almost did.
There is no doubt Carson Shields was a troubled young man, capable of being wild on and off the ice, even before the hazing. But it was the hazing, his parents came to believe, that triggered something that changed their son irrevocably.
“Something was stolen from him that night,” Larry says. “Whatever it was, it led him to overcompensate in going in the other direction.”
Carson now knows this to be true. All the bad, all the demons, all the bad behaviour, seem to date from that humiliation. Having been so seriously degraded that night and living in terror that those photographs would follow him, he set out to become what he calls the “Swinging Dick” of junior hockey.
His manhood would never be challenged. He would be the ultimate warrior, the very definition of hockey’s treasured “character” player.
“He was the kind of guy who would do whatever it took to win,” says Randy Lulashnyk, who coached the Dryden Ice Dogs to the Superior International Junior Hockey League championship with Carson playing a key role on defence.
“He might have looked like an enforcer but he could play. He could make that first good pass.”
But his main role was intimidation. Colin McIntosh, the Ice Dogs best player and leading scorer that year, recalls being crosschecked after a whistle and Carson skating across the ice to tear into the opposition player.
“Back at the bench the coach goes, ‘Shields – what was that?’” McIntosh recalls. “Carson’s simple reply was ‘Nobody touches Mac and gets away with it.’ And for two years, though I never asked for it, I knew that Carson always had my back.”
Lulashnyk began to hear stories of his player’s off-ice behaviour and it concerned him. “I had ideas,” he says from Yorkton, Sask., where he now lives. “But I had no proof. … Nobody wants to tell the coach.”
Another player on the team, Jonathon Mitchell, says he and the other rookies heard the stories of Carson’s abusive behaviour but, he adds: “Never once did Carson force those choices of his on others – that speaks to the character he has as a person.” He protected the rookies off the ice as well as the stars on the ice.
At one point, Carson asked to be dealt to another team, convinced he needed a new start away from his growing personal troubles. Lulashnyk granted the request. Not long after, Carson called about coming back, but he was turned down. “I wanted Carson Shields the player to come back,” the long-time junior coach says. “I didn’t want Carson Shields off-ice to come back.”
Carson continued to bounce from team to team, delighting some, appalling others – one team sent him packing after a single out-of-control shift in his first game – but always appreciated by his teammates for whom he would do anything.
“I played two years of junior with Carson,” says McIntosh, who now plays professional hockey in Europe. “I played without fear because he was guarding my back and would step in when needed. He wasn’t the toughest guy, but was so fiercely loyal to his teammates it was truly incredible.”
“Hockey is like no other sport when you’re into a game,” Carson says. “It’s a war out there. You have to know your teammates – are you going to be there for me? You have to know if I get mugged that you’re going to have my back. Well, I was that guy. I was ‘The Guy.’
“There’s not a person I played with that I couldn’t go to now and say, ‘Did you enjoy playing with me?’ They loved me on their team. I was there for them. Always there.”
Yet, the teams weren’t always there for him. He was a commodity – tough, willing, somewhat skilled – teams wanted when they didn’t have him and took for granted when they did. He was sent to teams, dropped by teams, picked up by teams, sometimes in a matter of hours.
“You become a piece of meat mentally,” he says. “No wonder there are so many troubled guys. No wonder there are stories of suicide. Guys can’t handle their demons. I can relate to those demons. I know them.”
“We wanted to support him,” Larry says. “We knew how much he loved the game. But … how much did I know? How much would I let go in order for him to play the game he loved. I can’t answer that. I don’t know.”
The longer Carson played, the larger those demons grew.
Drinking led to drugs, eventually cocaine. His personal problems grew worse.
One billet he had very much liked committed suicide, shattering the good woman he left behind and the young players who had looked to him for guidance. A female billet for another team (team locations have been deliberately left out) hit on him and played sexual mind games on him until, he says: “I would be out wandering the streets with a 26-er of vodka, afraid to go home.”
Carson also starting to take painkillers to handle the pains in his hands and knee. He graduated quickly through Advil to Tylenol 3 to Valium, clonazepam. To speed up the effect, he crushed the pills and inhaled the powder just as he continued to do with cocaine.
To maintain his “Swinging Dick” role on teams, and in the bars the players turned to after games, he turned to steroids, ballooning up to 220 pounds of muscle. He learned how to inject himself by watching YouTube videos. He had more power, more endurance. “This feels so good,” he wrote in his journal, “why isn’t it legal?”
He shaved his head and got more tattoos, the fierce physical trappings oddly out of sorts with his smooth baby face. He was The Guy on the ice, No. 23. He was The Guy in the bar taking the girl home. Forever and endlessly proving himself.
Finally, he came down to one final proof in hockey: He could make a career in the game. Some American schools had shown interest; there might be opportunities in the professional minor leagues.
“This was my 20-year-old year,” he says, “and my last kick at making an impression on pro or college scouts.”
He had returned to Winnipeg and to a team he had once played for. They won the championship – he proudly wears the ring today – but, almost at the very end of his junior eligibility, he crashed into the boards on a fore-check and wrecked his shoulder.
He was done.
“I strongly believe that when Carson’s junior career ended,” his old teammate Colin McIntosh says, “it was almost like a death for him. He had put his body on the line so many times and stood up for countless guys, only to watch them continue to play at a higher level.
“For him to watch guys he played against, and with, ripped him apart inside, and he began to hate and blame the game for not being able to play.”
With no college offers and no chance at professional hockey – “I don’t want to portray I even had a sniff at it” – Carson took his parents’ advice and went back to school.
The University of Winnipeg accepted him and issued him student No. 3019314. It was a crushing moment.
“I was always ‘23.’ That was my number, ‘23,’” he says. “The day I got my student card I looked at the number and I was no longer ‘23.’ I didn’t know anybody – but, more important, nobody knew me. That was scary.”
Without his on-ice persona, without his well-earned “rep” in hockey, he felt he had lost his identity. In the small towns and cities where he had played, he couldn’t even go for coffee without being hailed and admired. Now, if he went for coffee he sat alone. He took to drinking, alone, in his car in the campus parking lots.
He fell in with a rough crowd. It was, in many ways, his new team and he felt as though he was becoming a somebody again, the big tattooed tough guy who moved with ease among drug dealers and other criminal elements.
He became close with a major dealer, a man who took him to crack houses where children were soiled and whimpering while their parents lay high in the next room. He could not stand seeing such squalor and neglect so, one night, he stayed outside in the car while his friend went in to deal the drugs.
That was when he felt the barrel of a 9-mm pistol touch his temple, a choke line slip around his neck.
“Where is buddy?” he was asked.
Buddy, fortunately, emerged soon after and, even more fortunately, was carrying enough cash to satisfy the three burly men with the gun.
A second incident resulted in Carson being picked up by Winnipeg police, photographed and charged with assault. The court decided to send him to a facility where he was placed on a course for anger management.
It was there he finally had his epiphany: “I decided that I owed it to myself and to my parents to try and take a serious stab at university and being a productive member of society.
“I needed to straighten out – and quick.”
It is late fall of 2013. In the spring, Carson Shields will graduate from conflict resolution studies at the University of Winnipeg. He lives with his parents. He has part-time work with Manitoba Hydro. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He does volunteer work for a charity (hockeyhelpsthehomeless.com) raising money to build three shelters for the homeless.
And he is back in hockey, an assistant coach with the Transcona Railer Express, a local Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League team. The players are all aware of his “rep” when he was a player. They call him “Reggie Dunlop” after the feisty Paul Newman character in the iconic hockey movie Slap Shot.
“Carson is probably the most-liked coach on the team,” Express captain Greg Myall says. “Guys in the dressing room know he can relate to our generation and can be someone to go to and talk with if there is an issue individually or as a group. He knows when to be serious and the right time to have fun with the guys.
“He’s a really good coach,” says Bruce Sirrell, the old Kelvin High School teacher/hockey coach who is now running the Express. “He’s really settled down and changed. I’m too old to have the rapport with the guys that he has.”
At his son’s urging, Larry signed on with the Express as the assistant equipment manager – “glorified water boy,” he calls it. Father and son go to games together, just as they did 15 years ago, but the only expectation is they will enjoy the game and pass on what they can.
Larry now knows what his son lived through. They attend therapy sessions together. Larry and Carol now know just how far their baby fell, and if they had to pick a starting point for the long descent, it would be that rookie party.
“I never at any point thought it would have the damage it did,” Larry says. “I love this game, you know. It’s a wonderful game – but there is a sickness in the game …”
Carson agrees, a dark side to a wonderful game that serves no known purpose, that has no reason to be. That should no longer be.
“I swore that when it came my turn, it would never happen to others like it happened to me,” Carson says. He has set up a Twitter account (@CarsonShields23) where junior players can contact him if they wish to talk.
“Nobody think for a moment that I’m now some sort of prince,” he cautions. “I’m the furthest you can imagine from that. But I’m trying to pass on the lessons that I’ve learned.
“I’m hoping to make up for all those things that I’ve done.”
Follow me on Twitter:@RoyMacG