The circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of Ontario League player Terry Trafford have Frank Pietrangelo as baffled as he is saddened. The former NHLer, who coached Trafford in minor hockey, remembers an enormously talented, intensely driven young man who was well liked by his teammates.
“He was a great kid,” said Pietrangelo, who coached Trafford in minor midget with the Mississauga Reps and at The Hill, a private sports school in Toronto. “We never had any trouble or any problems with him and the other kids loved him.”
Trafford, who turned 20 just last month, was found dead Tuesday afternoon. He had been missing since March 3 after being sent home by the Saginaw Spirit. Trafford was found inside his green GMC Sierra truck in the parking lot of a Walmart store in Saginaw Township.
Trafford had been sent home by the team for violating team rules. It’s believed he was caught smoking marijuana on a recent road trip to Owen Sound. The team has issued a statement that Trafford was eligible to rejoin the team and had not been released. Trafford’s girlfriend had told several media outlets that Trafford had lived with depression for a number of years and that he was devastated over being sent home.
Pietrangelo said he never saw any signs of depression in Trafford when they were together in Mississauga and at The Hill. When he played at The Hill, Trafford was guided by Pietrangelo and Lindsay Hofford, who is head scout for the London Knights.
“I just talked to Lindsay a few hours ago and I asked him the same thing,” Pietrangelo said. “We never saw any of that. But he was a bit of an inconsistent player. You never know if (depression) had something to do with that.”
Pietrangelo did stress, however, that if Trafford were indeed living with depression, the stresses of playing at such a high level and trying to forge a professional career in the game can take their toll. Teenagers playing major junior are certainly not immune to the pressure that NHLers face. In fact, in some ways, their existence is more isolated and challenging, given that their place in the game is far from secure.
“It’s not an easy life,” said Pietrangelo, who played four years of U.S. college hockey before embarking on a seven-year NHL career that included a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991. “It’s not only hard on the ice, but it’s not easy socially or academically. In most cases, you’re far away from your family and when things don’t go well you don’t have the same family structure there to help you cope. You have to figure out a lot of things on your own.”
Pietrangelo recalled that Trafford, as a minor hockey player, was one of the elite players in Toronto. He said Trafford had “NHL skating ability,” and was so devoted to the game that he went to The Hill, and later another Toronto sports school called PEAC, so he could train and play during the day at school, then play with the Reps at night. Trafford was drafted by the Spirit in the third round, 41st overall, and was in his fourth season with the team. He had not been drafted by an NHL team.
“I’ve coached a lot of kids who have gone on to the NHL and Terry could skate as well as any of them,” Pietrangelo said. “There was some inconsistency, but when he was on his game, there wasn’t a better player in Toronto. He was a top player and he loved coming to the rink. Winter, fall, spring and summer he was there.”
OHL commissioner David Branch said the league has decided to postpone Wednesday night’s home game against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and that grief counselors will meet with the players that day. He said the league will then determine what to do with the Spirit’s final three games of the season – they’re scheduled to visit the Greyhounds Friday night and host the London Knights Saturday night – after the players are consulted.
“We’ll see how the players feel going forward,” Branch said. “We’ll get the temperature from them before we move forward.”
The problem for the league is that it will be difficult to reschedule any games because the regular season ends Sunday and the playoffs begin next week. The games against the Greyhounds will not have playoff implications for the Soo – they’re locked in as the winner of their division and the second seed in the Western Conference – but the Spirit is just three points ahead of the Owen Sound Attack for sixth place in the conference with both teams having three scheduled games remaining. The Knights also may have playoff implications.
“It’s an unprecedented situation,” Branch said. “And it may result in unprecedented action being taken.”
Branch said he spoke with Trafford's father, Roy, Tuesday evening. "I was so impressed with his courage," Branch said. "At this time our thoughts are only with his family. We're here to support them."