SANTA CRUZ, March 22, 2014 — The hockey world was shaken last week by the news that Saginaw Spirit center Terry Trafford had taken his own life. Teammates, friends and family members were shocked and saddened, first by Trafford’s abrupt disappearance after being released by the Spirit, and finally by the discovery of his body.
The incident highlights the desperate world of athletes who, for whatever reason, have given themselves no other options. His departure from Saginaw was not only the end of Terry Trafford’s hockey career, it was, in his mind, the end of his life.
Elite players choose the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) because it has been proven to be the best way to parlay one’s skill into a professional hockey career. Playing pro does not always mean playing in the NHL. Many players find jobs in North America’s various minor leagues or even across the pond in Europe.
For those who are not drafted by an NHL club, and whose agents are unable to secure them a position elsewhere, the league offers a comprehensive scholarship program, providing books and tuition for college once they are finished with their junior career.
Most junior players are between the ages of 16-19, with clubs allowed a small number of overage (20 years old) players to remain on their rosters. Trafford was one of these over-agers, playing out his last year of junior. He was not selected in his NHL draft year, and one can only assume that, if he had an agent, they were unable to find another pro club for him before his death.
A professional career is not within every player’s reach, which is why junior leagues offer the scholarship. Once they complete their junior careers, players have 18 months to access their scholarship money and apply it towards their education. Trafford, having played four years in the OHL, could have used his scholarship money towards a four year degree. It would appear that he was not willing to accept that his hockey career was ending.
Once a player’s NHL draft year comes and goes without them being selected, they ought to sit down with their agents and talk frankly about their future in hockey. By the time a player is 20 years old, they should be looking ahead to the next chapter of their life, whether it is continuing to play, or focusing on getting an education and pursuing another career. The tragic events surrounding Terry Trafford’s death would suggest that he never considered his life after hockey, that he was emotionally unprepared for what might come next.
Some have suggested that the team could have done more to assess Trafford’s mental and emotional state upon his release. In the alpha male world of elite athletics, players are reticent about asking for help or showing any fear or uncertainty. In the highly competitive atmosphere surrounding junior hockey, coaches are tasked with developing players and winning championships. Monitoring their players’ emotional state is not really within their purview.
Junior teams have education coordinators on staff to make sure players are completing the required schoolwork to ensure that they graduate high school expeditiously and with adequate grades. Perhaps the CHL could explore the idea of assigning trained counselors to each club. Players could meet periodically with these professionals for completely anonymous sessions, where they could feel free to talk about the types of things that are not commonly discussed in the locker room.
It is unknown if such an evaluation might have averted Terry Trafford’s death, but with major junior doing so much to accommodate its athletes while they are playing, and assisting them with their education post-hockey, it would not be unreasonable to request some help with the clearly difficult transition from one to the other, an alteration for which Terry Trafford clearly was not prepared.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.