WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced sexual and physical violence or know someone affected by it.
Todd Tisdale dreamed of playing hockey in the big leagues. He didn’t think he’d make it to the NHL, but he loved the game and still wanted to pursue hockey at the junior level.
As a teen he left his hometown behind and headed to a private boarding school in Wilcox, Sask., known for its prestigious hockey program.
But before the centre got a chance to chase the puck on the ice, he left the Christian college traumatized.
Tisdale said he suffered physical, mental and sexual abuse from other students in hazing rituals while attending Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, just south of Regina, in 1986. The experiences have haunted him for decades, he said, but recently he’s found a way to heal and wants to help others.
“I want to just change people’s perspective of hazing. It’s not a sort of bonding experience. It’s a terrible, traumatic experience,” said Tisdale.
He shared his story publicly for the first time in a TSN article published in December 2021. Since then, several people have contacted him to share similar experiences. The response has encouraged him to keep talking.
‘A lot of trauma’
Tisdale now lives in Medicine Hat, Alta., but he grew up playing hockey and wearing No. 9 in Swift Current, Sask. He was inspired as a young teen by his older brother, who won a national championship with Notre Dame’s team, so he applied.
He was accepted as a Grade 11 student at age 15, and saw it as a stepping stone for his aspirations.
However, the school wasn’t what he expected and hazing was rampant, he said.
At first he was forced to do basic chores for older students, but the hazing escalated. He had to massage other students and was hit and choked, one time to the point of passing out, Tisdale said.
“A lot of stuff that happened in that school that shouldn’t have happened.”
Tisdale remembers in one particularly traumatizing incident, he was forced into a room with other students.
When he entered, another student already in the room had his pants pulled down and a string tied around his genitals, Tisdale said. The other end of the rope was tied to his own penis and the other students forced the boys to do a “tug of war” with their genitals, he said. The loser had to stay and face another person.
Tisdale said when he left the school to see his girlfriend in Regina, the school expelled him for leaving without permission. After that, he struggled mentally.
“[I] was in a lot of trauma between the ages of 16 to 24, 25. I was in a kind of a state of shock and had a nervous breakdown at 24,” he said.
He left Saskatchewan and tried to keep busy to distract himself from the pain.
College denies allegations
He said he asked the school to apologize twice in the 1990s with no success. Years later, he launched a civil lawsuit.
The statement of claim was filed in 2018. It says Tisdale was a minor when he attended the school, and the college held the role of his guardian and supervisor.
The lawsuit states that Tisdale’s abuse and injuries were the result of the school staff’s negligence, that the college failed to provide proper dorm and student supervision, and that it failed to protect Tisdale while he was in its care.
The statement alleges that had the college not been negligent, the sexual and physical assaults would not have occurred. He is seeking financial compensation, to be determined by the trial judge.
A statement of defence filed on behalf of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame said the college denies each and every allegation in Tisdale’s statement of claim, including that it was negligent or breached duty of care.
It is asking Tisdale to prove he suffered the injuries and damages described. The college denies it is responsible for students’ actions against other students and has asked the courts to dismiss the lawsuit with costs.
Tisdale recently amended his statement of claim, filing a new version on April 29, 2022, that lists a second defendant in addition to the college — another man who was a student staying in the same dorm as Tisdale during 1986 at the college.
The amended statement of claim says this man, who was also a minor at the time, was responsible for some of the violence Tisdale alleges. This defendant must file a statement of defence within 30 days of being served.
The school did not respond to a question from CBC News on whether it has taken any action to stop hazing rituals among its student athletes since Tisdale was there.
In a May 11 written statement sent to CBC on behalf of president Rob Palmarin, the college confirmed the lawsuit, but said “Notre Dame cannot comment further on this matter publicly at this time as the lawsuit is still underway.”
Changing a culture
Jay Johnson, a professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba, said there is a long history of violent hazing embedded in both boarding schools and sports institutions.
The purpose of hazing is often to establish a hierarchy among a group of people — players on a team or students in a dorm, for example — and mark an entry or transition into the new situation, he said.
It’s rooted in tradition and has often existed as an “open secret” in institutions, said Johnson, who has researched sports-related hazing for years.
“We rarely hear the voices of those former athletes or students because they feel that they’re alone,” he said.
But it’s critical they come forward, so people don’t view it as only an issue of the past, said Johnson.
“I do think that it’s really important that if we’re really going to look toward changing a culture in an institution, like sport, that we need to continue to hear these stories.”
Johnson said that since the 1980s there has been more progress toward ending hazing, with more awareness and public scrutiny. Many schools and teams now have policies, but he said institutions need to take that further than a new paragraph in their code of conduct.
Institutions must identify hazing, help people understand it and create a strong policy with clear consequences, said Johnson. But most importantly, institutions need to adopt a different kind of ritual to mark transition periods typically associated with hazing, he said.
Johnson has worked with sports teams to help them build new traditions, like a canoe trip, to bring younger and older people together and emphasize team building.
“I don’t think you have to humiliate, degrade or harm an individual to welcome them as a new member into the group.”
‘Tell someone’: Tisdale
Tisdale said he has been struggling for decades, but 2021 was a game changer. Tisdale said his brother could see that he was going through a dark time, so he reached out to former NHL player Theo Fleury and asked if he could help.
Fleury has been outspoken about his own experiences of abuse, trauma and attempts to cope. In his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire, he revealed he had been sexually abused by a junior hockey coach and said he hoped his story would help others come forward.
Tisdale has spoken with Fleury numerous times since then and said that connection has been critical for his healing. He’s been able to open up and lean more on his friends for support, Tisdale said, and every second week he attends a group meeting for support.
A key piece of advice he’s gleaned from Fleury is that helping is healing, Tisdale said. His voice grew thick with emotion when thinking about young people who might be experiencing abusive hazing today.
“Tell someone. Tell a coach, tell a parent. Tell a friend, and know that you’re not alone.”
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
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