Just to be clear, neither Jay McKee nor Matthew Barnaby questions whether or not Eric Guest is telling the truth when he says he was locked in a bathroom at a non-sanctioned team party as a Kitchener Rangers rookie and forced to use cocaine. Where they do differ from their player is in Guest’s assertion that he couldn’t tell anyone in the organization what had happened.
And now that it is in the public domain, the Rangers have acted swiftly. The organization put out a statement saying, “These allegations involve former players with our team and are extremely serious and potentially criminal conduct.” The team has contacted the Waterloo Regional Police Service and said the team is cooperating in an investigation that is being done by Ontario League commissioner David Branch.
The OHL also released a statement saying, “These allegations constitute a serious violation of OHL rules and include allegations of criminal conduct. We have reached out to Eric, requested an immediate meeting to receive the pertinent details and to initiate an investigation. Once we have spoken to Eric we will have a better understanding of the next steps.”
McKee and Barnaby, both former NHLers, were Guest’s head coach and assistant coach, respectively, during Guest’s 2016-17 rookie season with the Rangers. Guest, who played Jr. B hockey in his native London last season and has committed to playing as a 20-year-old for the London Nationals in 2020-21, released an explosive video message on social media Monday night in which he claimed the cocaine incident happened early in his rookie season.
Guest said it was the first team party of the season and was held about a month after he arrived in Kitchener for his first training camp with the Rangers. “Obviously, the guys were making me drink and stuff, no problem with that,” Guest said in the video. “I had barely ever drank (sic) before…I’m acting like an idiot.” At that point, Guest said one of the “older guys” on the Rangers told him and “another younger kid” to go into the bathroom. “He locks the door and…he said, ‘You guys aren’t leaving the bathroom until you do cocaine.’ When you’re young in that league…you listen to what the older guys tell you. You don’t really have a voice. You don’t fight back. They have power. They rule you.”
When it came to going to the coaches or management about the incident, Guest said he feared for his hockey career and thought it would ruin his chances of playing pro hockey. “You can’t go to your coaches, your GMs and say this stuff is happening in the locker room,” Guest said. “They just don’t know about it. But this kind of stuff happens.”
(Attempts to reach Guest, OHL commissioner Branch and current GM-coach Mike McKenzie, who was an assistant coach at the time, were unsuccessful.)
For his part McKee agreed with Guest that he was completely in the dark about the incident or any other issues Guest had while he was playing with the Rangers. He and Barnaby both only heard of the incident when it was aired on social media. McKee said what disappoints him the most is that Guest couldn’t feel he could go to his coaches.
“Never once were me and my staff were made aware of that,” McKee said. “What’s tough about seeing it now, is I think every guy I coached with in Kitchener would say that we had a very approachable staff. We had an open-door policy and that’s something we talked about a lot. I think we felt different in that way. I was a players’ coach, so it’s really hard for us to see a story like that. To hear Eric say that players can’t talk to coaches, that’s tough to hear.”
McKee acknowledged that even with an open-door approach and a proactive coaching staff, it still might be difficult for a player to come to his coaches. He hopes that changes, because coaches can’t do anything about a situation if they don’t know that anything is wrong. “I know with Mike McKenzie (the Rangers former assistant coach who is now coach-GM of the team), he wouldn’t sit and wait for players to come to him, he would schedule meetings with guys,” McKee said. “That was part of how we tried to work. He’d ask, ‘How are things going? How’s your billet home?’ We’d have meetings with players all the time.”
Barnaby, who was an assistant along with McKenzie that season, was just as insistent that the coaching staff had no idea about the incident. “I saw no indication of this,” Barnaby said. “There was always a place in that organization to go and tell someone and it would not have been condoned in any way. There’s no way anyone in that organization would have, first of all, known about that, and second of all, tolerated it in any way because it’s disgusting if it happened. I can’t even fathom somebody making a young kid do that.”
And perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from all of this. This incident allegedly happened in one of the best-run organizations in the Canadian Hockey League, one that prides itself on its programs both on and off the ice. In McKee, Guest had a coach who was willing to listen to his players, a guy who was just 39 years old at the time and a couple of years removed from a pro career, a man who came to the Rangers with an open mind and a desire to veer away philosophically from the old-school mentality when it came to dealing with his players. And Guest still didn’t feel comfortable coming to him with something so important.
For all the advancements the game and the culture of hockey have made, it’s pretty clear there is still a long way to go and there is much work to do.
Guest played parts of three seasons with the Rangers, returning home late last season. The team did not disclose the reason, but Guest has since publicly opened up about his mental health struggles and substance abuse. He has talked openly about dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts. He did not give up on hockey, however, joining the Jr. B London Nationals this past season where he was a standout, scoring 22 goals and 47 points in 42 games. “He fit in really well with the guys and he was a leader as a 19-year-old,” said Nationals director of hockey operations Tim Simmons. “We knew he had some struggles before, but he didn’t talk about it. He was on our top line and had a really good season. He loved playing with us. I think he needed hockey in his life and living at home really helped. Being at home and having his parents and not having the pressure of an OHL season compared to a Jr. B season was good for him.”
We can only hope that Eric Guest is getting the help he needs and finds the world and the hockey arena to be a safe place again. It certainly looks like that is happening now. And if we’ve learned anything the last little while, the hockey world needs to have its secrets exposed for anything to change. The Rangers were right to contact the authorities to get to the bottom of this. And this is another opportunity for hockey leagues at all levels to learn and grow.
“I’m all for people talking about their experiences,” McKee said. “I hope speaking out helps him and I hope that for kids who are either entering junior hockey or in the middle of junior hockey, if they’re going through an experience like that or having a hard time, hopefully that gives them that confidence and strength to speak up as well."
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