NEEPAWA, Man. - The Manitoba Junior Hockey League reopened an investigation Friday into a hazing scandal that has engulfed the Neepawa Natives and warns that more sanctions may be imposed on the troubled team.
Some players have changed their stories about what went on during an initiation session for rookies inside the team dressing room in late September, league commissioner Kim Davis said.
"It's frustrating to say the least. We had an expectation of forthrightness from the individuals involved and it looks as though maybe we didn't get that," Davis said.
"What the players indicated to a couple of the executive members of the hockey club yesterday was that in fact the assistant coach was present during some of the hazing activities, which was contrary to what the players provided to me when the investigation was done originally."
Assistant coach Brad Biggers, who abruptly resigned Thursday, was handed an indefinite suspension by the league Friday. The move prevents him from coaching in any Canadian league.
Biggers was not immediately available to comment. Calls and text messages to his cell phone were unanswered.
Team and league officials have refused to go into detail about what happened in the locker room. But the father of one 15-year-old player said some of the rookies were told to dance and remove their clothing as older players watched and judged them. Five of the rookies were then made to walk naked around their locker room with plastic water-bottle crates tied to their genitals by a string and dragging on the floor, he said.
"And the players were throwing towels into the crates to add weight," the father said.
The incident was initially kept quiet, but the 15-year-old later told a friend, and word got back to his father, who went straight to the team.
The league investigated and earlier this week fined the Natives $5,000. Some coaches and players were suspended for up to five games. The RCMP was called and launched its own investigation.
The league's new probe will involve an outside investigator, Davis said, and will get to the bottom of exactly what happened and who was involved.
What happened after the 15-year-old player came forward with his complaint added insult to injury for the boy and his family. He was suspended from playing and told to apologize to his teammates for telling on them, according to his father.
"The team was loaded on the bus, ready to go on a road trip. They all got off the bus and went back into the dressing room and he apologized to them. How bad is that, making the victim apologize?"
The team will not comment on the father's version of the story, but admits the player was suspended.
"It's difficult to have him in the lineup because the family is so proactively trying to make it look like we're the bad guys that it's pretty tough to accommodate him playing in the group," Natives president Dave McIntosh said.
The league has received mixed messages on whether an apology was forced.
"In the initial investigation, there was some conflicting evidence or testimony to that ... but we're expecting that an independent investigator with years of experience will be able to give us a more definitive answer," Davis said.
The fallout from the hazing scandal now has spread beyond Neepawa. Phone calls have poured into the player's home from other towns and provinces. One of those callers was former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy — a player who was abused as a boy by coach Graham James.
"Sheldon Kennedy gave him his personal cell phone (number) and said 'any time you want to talk to me about this just phone me, doesn't matter what time of day it is'," the father said.
Eric Robinson, Manitoba's minister responsible for sport, phoned the boy's mother and offered to provide counselling or any other support the family may want.
Robinson has also talked about lobbying the federal government to make hazing a specific offence under the Criminal Code, but he said Friday he will await the the outcome of an RCMP investigation into the matter.
"We could look at something like that ... but we still have a legal investigation conducted by the RCMP," Robinson said.
The boy has missed seven games so far. The Natives are planning to trade him to another team, which suits the boy's parents just fine.
It's the only way he can be among teammates he can trust, his father said.
"And we just want him back playing hockey."
Despite the turmoil and the personal toll the scandal has taken, his father says the boy has performed an important service.
"He's making an impact. Little does he know that perhaps the next generation of hockey players might have him to thank that they're not getting touched in the dressing room."
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg