The only place hockey lives in Carcillo’s house now is upstairs on his laptop, where he runs a Twitter account, @CarBombBoom13, that has become a depository for the sport’s darkest experiences and a megaphone to demand change across the sport.
Since he retired from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, Carcillo has reinvented himself as an unlikely advocate for hockey players who have suffered concussions or been physically or emotionally abused by teammates and coaches. He started by sharing his own stories of injury, hazing and depression. Then last year, former NHL player Akim Aliu spoke out, too, accusing Bill Peters, then coach of the Calgary Flames, of calling him the n-word years before in a minor league dressing room.
Aliu’s revelation sparked a moment of catharsis — and reckoning — in hockey, with some even dubbing it “hockey’s #MeToo moment.” Current and former players shared stories of mental and physical abuse. Coaches lost their jobs or faced discipline. Peters resigned. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was fired after allegations of emotional abuse, including asking a Toronto rookie to rank his teammates’ effort — then sharing that list with the team. Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford was suspended, accused of kicking and choking players and deploying homophobic slurs at former player Patrick O’Sullivan.
The NHL responded in December, announcing a hotline for players to anonymously report abuse and becoming the last major North American sports league to create a code of conduct for players and coaches.
“Times are evolving. We have to evolve," Brendan Shanahan, the Maple Leafs’ president and a former NHL player, told reporters that month at the NHL Board of Governors meeting. “We all came from a certain generation where things occurred to us as players that we just accepted. We all have to do a better job of just creating that kind of work environment on the ice and off the ice.”
But Carcillo believes the NHL’s influence only goes so far — that in Canada, this culture takes hold among teenagers who travel far from home for an opportunity to eventually play in the Canadian Hockey League, the sport’s biggest and most competitive junior league. Most never reach the NHL. The ones who do arrive having been long indoctrinated into a system of sometimes violent and humiliating hazing.
Carcillo wanted the wider world to know this, too. So in the days after Aliu’s disclosure, he opened his private Twitter inbox to the public and invited anyone with a story of hockey abuse to share their accounts with him.
His inbox was flooded: More than 300 people messaged Carcillo, he says, most with stories from their days in junior hockey. Many said they were telling their stories for the first time. With their permission, Carcillo shared a handful of messages with The Washington Post.
One told Carcillo about her nephew, a young, black player, who was taunted with bananas in his team’s dressing room and called racial slurs on the ice before he quit the sport. Another told Carcillo, in graphic detail, how she was repeatedly raped by her high school teammates, attempted suicide and quit. Another told Carcillo how he and his junior league teammates were forced to tie their genitals together with skate laces for a painful game of tug of war.
“For some of these, I could only get through half a paragraph before I had to stop,” Carcillo says over a bowl of Caesar salad at his home in suburban Chicago. When he’s not traveling, the 35-year-old Carcillo lives in sweats, helping his wife, Ela, corral any combination of their three young children and their cousins as they stomp from the basement to a living room lit by floor-to-ceiling windows to a leafy paradise outside.
Making coffee across the kitchen, listening to Carcillo read from his Twitter inbox, Ela breaks her silence: “Who thinks of this s---?”
“These guys who are traumatized,” Carcillo says, not missing a beat. “It’s the most racist and homophobic environment you’ll ever get put into because everybody’s a tough man and you don’t talk about your feelings and you do this to people. Like it’s some kind of rite of passage to be able to degrade a minor. It’s so hard to stop the cycle of abuse. It’s easy to be abused, and it’s easy to do it to the next person.”
Carcillo has turned some of the messages into controversy, tweeting screen shots from people accusing coaches of mistreating them. Mostly, though, he’s unsure of what to do next. Tip off local media? Help file a lawsuit? Work to create solutions with leagues?
Occasionally, he opens a message that forces him to confront his own role in what he calls hockey’s “culture of abuse.”
“Hey Dan, you don’t remember me and have no reason to,” a former minor league referee wrote to Carcillo. “I’ve got to say, you were one of the worst people I dealt with in the game of hockey. You were awful to all of us.
“But that was a game and that was a long time ago. ... I’m sitting here watching my 8-year-old son have a blast at his practice this morning and hope it stays that way for him for a long time. I don’t want him to ever have to go through what countless other players had to go through. Keep outing the bad guys and telling the good guys’ story.”
Carcillo shifts in his kitchen bar stool. There are too many anonymous victims to apologize to, but he does his best, sifting through the DMs in free moments and bracing for what he will read next.
“That’s the one you should put on Twitter,” Ela says.
A ticking ‘Car Bomb’
Looking at Carcillo, the only clue of the hell he put his body through playing hockey is on his face. His plump upper lip is pursed and turned slightly upward where a puck once sliced through to the gums. His two front teeth, casualties of a stick blade to the face, are replaced with veneers. It gets worse the further down you go. He tore the labrum in his left shoulder so many times the connective tissue has disintegrated. He has had his abdomen stapled back to his pelvis. He has had nine knee surgeries. He had seven documented concussions.
Ask guys who played against him and they might tell you it was all earned, karmically speaking. In nine NHL seasons, Carcillo was suspended for dirty play nine times and twice led the league in penalty minutes, earning a reputation as a reckless enforcer willing to fight over the slightest affront. In 2015, after Carcillo slammed his stick across Mathieu Perreault’s lower back, sidelining the Winnipeg Jets center for 11 days, a writer for the Hockey News described him as an “unrepentant on-ice cannon ball.” When he returned from his six-game suspension, a reporter asked whether his playing style might change. "No,” Carcillo said.
“I talk to guys who used to play, and they don’t understand,” says his childhood best friend, Andrew Dennis, a former high school teammate and minor league rival. “They’re like, ‘Dan used to do all this s---.’
“What they don’t understand is that Dan’s trying to change the way things are. All these players think Carcillo is trying to expose them. But he’s exposed himself, too. He’s trying to change things."
Carcillo didn’t begin his hockey career as an enforcer.
“He was such a beautiful player,” says Robb Gibb, who coached Carcillo’s youth hockey team in Ontario. “He wasn’t this bruiser that you see, this Car Bomb guy. He was just an incredible goal scorer.”
Yet Carcillo took easily to the uglier aspects of the game. When he was 15, he played junior hockey with future NHL winger Anthony Stewart, who is black. In the dressing room, Carcillo says, he and several teammates chanted “white power” at Stewart.
“He was the number one prospect in hockey,” Carcillo says, “and we just f---ing wanted to chop him down. Stupid. Just stupid. I mean, Anthony f---ing snapped, as he should.”
Carcillo says coaches routinely deployed racial slurs and homophobic epithets against players. The motivation to avoid those labels was as strong as the desire to excel on the ice. Parroting them came naturally.
"I would even tell white guys they were playing like n-words,” Carcillo says. “It was learned.”
In 2002, Carcillo landed with the Sarnia Sting, a Canadian Hockey League club that treated extreme hazing as cherished tradition, according to Carcillo and teammates. When he was 17, Carcillo was beaten with a sawed-off goalie stick and stuffed in a bathroom with other rookies while teammates spit tobacco juice on them, he says. He was also subjected to the “shower train,” he says, in which he and other rookies were seated on a shower floor while veterans spit and urinated on them.
The next year, Carcillo was playing for Team Canada’s under-18 club. At a team dinner, he talked about the beatings and the shower train and the bus bathrooms.
“Their jaws hit the floor,” Carcillo says.
It had never occurred to him to complain to the league. But Team Canada’s coach, Brad McCrimmon, alerted David Branch, who was president of the CHL and commissioner of the Ontario Hockey League, where Sarnia plays. Branch came to Sarnia to inquire but took no action.
“In speaking to certain people in charge of the club and a couple of players, I did not see a cause to move forward with an actual investigation,” Branch said in an interview.
Carcillo was drafted 73rd overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003. After a trade, he debuted in the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006 and led the league in penalty minutes (324) in the 2007-08 season despite playing in just 57 games. He was self-medicating for depression with alcohol, he says, and his playing time diminished. He was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, but his minutes kept slipping, so Carcillo turned to rehab. Sober at 25, he realized that Stewart, among dozens of others, deserved an apology. They were working out together in a small group that offseason when Carcillo pulled him aside and apologized.
“I forgave him as we were 13-year-old kids,” Stewart said in an email. “It was one of a few incidents I had to deal with as a minority playing hockey."
Rehab helped Carcillo get sober, but it did nothing to alter his approach to the game. In 2014, as a member of the New York Rangers, he was suspended for six games for elbowing a linesman on his way to the penalty box. In 2015, he cross-checked Perreault for another six-game suspension. He won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in 2013 and 2015, and then he retired.
He went immediately into coaching, taking on a group of under-15 players in Illinois.
“I was miserable, man, miserable, and trying to teach kids to get into a sport that f---ed me up,” Carcillo says. “I realized, you’ve got to get away from this sport. As soon as I finally had the full picture of everything that I’ve been, how I’d been lied to and how dangerous this sport is and then thinking about the abuse, I realized I can’t teach kids to get into this sport.”
In 2018, Carcillo shared his Sarnia story publicly for the first time, in a string of tweets. Some former teammates backed up his claims, but it didn’t exactly spark a movement. Minor league coaches and pundits insisted that hockey’s dark days had passed. And players weren’t keen to follow Carcillo’s example. He was, after all, “Car Bomb.” He lacked the credibility to lead this movement.
That fall, Carcillo was among 300 former NHL players who won a $19 million settlement from the league over its handling of head injuries, but Carcillo opted not to take the money, choosing to sue the league as an individual. That case is pending. “That settlement was an insult,” he says.
The NHL declined to comment for this story, citing Carcillo’s lawsuit.
That settlement offer also happened to come as Carcillo’s concussion symptoms climaxed. He was sleeping until 2 p.m. every day. His speech was slurred. He was anxious and depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Carcillo says a call from a former teammate, who introduced him to CBD and other alternative medicines, saved his life.
“Three and a half years of doing what the white coats were telling me to do,” he says, looking out at his backyard, where his children are speeding around on a mini four-wheeler, courtesy of Santa Claus. “Answering that phone call saved my life and allowed me to keep doing the work I’m doing."
An inbox explosion
Much of Carcillo’s new life is spent on planes, which isn’t that different from his old one. He has flown to more than 50 speaking engagements in 2019 and 2020, including events across Ontario this winter, in dressing rooms and firehouses and police stations, where he spoke about mental health with youth players and first responders. He also travels in pursuit of alternative brain-health remedies: Last month, he went to Peru for an Ayahuasca retreat with American veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a hard time saying no.
So the avalanche of messages from players who had suffered abuse has become as much an emotional burden as a logistical one.
“I can only get through so many, because there are just tons of them,” he says.
He also doesn’t know what to do with them. He has asked a handful of people to forward their accounts to journalists who have reached out to him. Some said they weren’t interested in retribution; they only wanted to be heard by someone they admire. He says he and two lawyer friends have discussed a class-action lawsuit against the Canadian Hockey League, where most of the abuse is alleged to have taken place.
Whatever he decides, important people are watching. In December, a representative from the Western Hockey League, a junior league, asked Carcillo to share the accounts in his inbox, the official said, to investigate the wrongdoers. Carcillo didn’t trust the league and declined. Later that month, he requested a meeting with David Branch, the same minor league commissioner who 15 years before investigated Carcillo’s Sarnia allegations. This time, Branch invited him to the Canadian Hockey League offices in Toronto.
Branch told The Washington Post — and Carcillo — that the league has been working to improve players’ experiences for “many years," and that “the revelations by Akim Aliu did not cause us to take any further steps.” The CHL, he says, has “zero tolerance” for hazing and an investigatory protocol for alleged incidents of hazing or coaching abuse. But the league has had to use that protocol only once, Branch says, in 2006. “That’s the only one that has been brought to our attention and investigated,” he says.
“We don’t even allow first-year players to pick up pucks after practice,” he says. "All of that has been removed. And I’m satisfied with our zero-tolerance that all of that has been removed.”
Carcillo says, “He’s just extremely out of touch."
Still, Carcillo has an idea for Branch and the CHL: He wants to spearhead a group of traveling former players and a mental health professional who can speak to players from experience — perhaps Brock McGillis, an openly gay former OHL and pro player; or O’Sullivan, a former NHL player who wrote a book about abuse at the hands of his father; or even Stewart, Carcillo’s onetime victim.
“And then you have your mental health professional here,” Carcillo says. " 'Tap into this person if you need any help.’ The message gets delivered so much better when you have former players who’ve been to the top.”
Dennis says, “I think he loves the game. He just hates the institution — and with good reason.”
For Carcillo, such an initiative would mean reimmersing himself in a game he walked away from only three years ago, a prospect he never imagined then. With every day, every message and every new idea about ways to intervene, he gets closer to unearthing those relics in his basement.
“As I get better," he says, "I start entertaining the idea of, like, keeping the s--- that I have downstairs from my grandfather.”