Review by Budd Bailey
The first person to come to mind when reading Justin Davis’ “Conflicted Scars” was Andre Agassi. Yes, the tennis player.
Agassi wrote a fabulous autobiography called “Open.” He candidly discussed the fact that he generally hated many parts of his tennis career, even though he was always really good at it.
Davis has a similar mindset. He enjoyed portions of the game, but other parts brought him depression and sadness. Along the way, he paid a price for the toll that he had to take to chase a hockey dream. The book is an attempt to figure out what the heck happened along the way.
One thing probably needs to be set straight at the start. The subtitle – “An Average Player’s Journey to the NHL” – might be a little deceptive. Yes, he was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the fourth round in 1996. However, Davis was merely invited to a couple of training camps for a few days and never reached the NHL.
He was, however, a heck of a player at the lower levels – one who simply wasn’t good enough to reach the big leagues. Davis often would dominate games as a child, as he was big for his age as he eventually grew into a 6-foot-4 body. However, he learned that fame and talent brought some baggage. The game came easily to Davis, prompting jealousy and slights from teammates, parents of teammates and opposing players, fans, etc. That can be rough on a seven-year-old. One time Davis scored six goals in a 7-1 win in a championship game. You’d think that would be enough to earn MVP honors, but no – organizers thought Davis won awards all the time, and someone else should get a turn to be honored. Try explaining that to a kid.
The hazing came later. At a rookie initiation, Davis was ordered to strip, drink a glass of liquid that was shall we say left behind from the previous rookie in the process, and then do push-ups while putting private body parts into the cup. The 15-year-old Davis had his first beer after that, naked while surrounded by teammates.
Soon it was on to junior hockey and the Ontario Hockey Association, where Davis suffered his first major concussion. A team doctor told him, “Take your equipment off, try to shower, turn off the dressing room lights and lay down in the shower until we get back … Try and stay still.” That’s rather bad advice, but 16-year-olds figure out not to argue with anyone in authority. There was another bit of hazing there during a long bus trip. The rookies were stripped and had to do a “walk of shame” in the back of the bus while the veterans slapped their butt and pulled a string that was tied to the players’ genitals. Then all the rookies were stuffed into the bus’ bathroom, where the heat was turned up to full blast. Their clothes were tied into a knot and thrown into the room, where they had to figure out what went where. It took a few hours before everyone was dressed and freed. Coaches ignored this stuff – it’s all part of “team-building.”
Mature behavior was hard to find back then. At one point, Davis and some teammates decided to have a little fun with someone else’s expensive paintball gun, leading to an confrontation with police. While nothing too serious came out of it, some newspaper headlines about the incident followed Davis around for much of his remaining hockey career.
Davis had some injury problems as well as issues with management, so he bounced around a bit in junior hockey. In one game in Michigan, Davis was knocked out and had convulsions on the ice. While the team acted as if it just wanted him to get on a bus and go back to Canada, where medical care was covered financially, a trainer insisted Davis be taken to a hospital. The young player ended up in intensive care; his family (and not the team) received a bill for $15,000 for the three-day hospital stay. The forward finally thrived in Ottawa, where legendary coach Brian Kilrea could look good among his peers simply by acting like a grown-up. No wonder he’s in the Hall of Fame. Davis played well enough to win a championship there – and be a good scorer in the process.
After finishing his junior eligibility, Davis headed to the University of Western Ontario. He was 21 when he started there, and played five seasons including one that saw the team win a national championship. Then it was on to Germany for two years to finish the formal part of his career, although Davis has played some senior hockey once in a while. He also has done a little coaching.
Youth and junior hockey have received plenty of criticism for its dealings with such matters as penalizing diversity and not dealing with sexual abuse over the years. There have been some efforts to change that lately; it’s tough to say how successful it has been at this point – especially from a distance. Davis raises these points to show that other activities within the so-called “hockey culture” might need examining too. He admits he more or less forced himself to “buy in” to all of it, figuring it was just part of the price needed to move up the ladder. But now while looking back, Davis knows that attitude came with a price of its own – such as 12 concussions, OCD and shoulder problems.
The resulting book from all of this comes off a little unevenly. It’s a little difficult to make old tales of generally forgotten hockey teams too interesting, particularly when looking across an international border. There are also some stories about practical jokes that either fall into the “you had to be there” or “grow up already” categories. Some readers certainly will enjoy stories about ketchup being secretly spread on the good shoes of a teammate in a restaurant. The stories, often told in a locker room after a game over a cold beer, are part of what keeps luring Davis back to the game in one form or another.
“Conflicted Scars,” then, is something of a therapy session – someone’s attempt to sort out “how did I get here?” There’s plenty to unpack here, and it might take others to figure out what happened to people like Davis and what to do about it. This isn’t a great book, but it’s good enough to start some conversations that we’ve been avoiding for decades. If that happens, it will be a success.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)