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Emotional Abuse: Youth Hockey's Dirty Little Secret

Does failure of USA Hockey to lead on issue put kids at risk?

 

All too often a youth sports story comes across my desk which reads more like the script for a made-for-television movie a story, which if it weren't true, I might have found hard to believe.

Over the winter sports season, my e-mail box has been flooded with youth sports horror stories from every corner of the nation. Most have a common theme: Hockey players who have been psychologically or emotionally abused by their coaches.

What follows is a cautionary tale that, I am sad to report, highlights so many of the things that need fixing in youth sports; issues I have been writing about (or would banging my head against the wall in frustration be more apt?) for the past twelve years, problems that don't seem to be getting any better, unfortunately.

Ostensibly, it is the story of a team of nine-year old hockey players in a Boston suburb, their coach, a former high school baseball coach and local sports hero, the all-male board of directors of the town's hockey club, a hockey mom concerned about her kids emotional well-being, and, at center ice, a set of adorable, identical, competitive, but sensitive twin boys who became, as is all too often the case in the adult-centered world of youth sports, the unintended but innocent victims of a real life power play.

If you are a hockey mom or dad, especially if you live in the Boston area, you may have already figured out that this is the story of the Foglietta family of Salem, Massachusetts, Bill and Holly, and their twins, Austin and William. You may have read about it in the newspaper, heard about it on talk radio, or seen it on television. The stories were so numerous, they were hard to miss.William and Austin Foglietta with Stanley Cup

But, having spent countless hours talking to Holly, at least trying to talk to some of the other principal players in this saga, pouring over a pile of e-mails, the USA Hockey codes of ethics and of conduct, Mass Hockey's disciplinary rules, and USA Hockey's Annual Guide, I am sure of one thing: this is a story which, while it has sparked controversy, and is likely to generate even more, needs to be told in all of its detail to fully appreciate just how complete a window it provides into at least one little corner of the world of youth hockey, if not youth hockey and youth sports in general. 

It is a story which, in its telling, offers lessons for all the stakeholders - parents, coaches, administrators, and state and national sports governing bodies, in this case USA Hockey - and cries out for action to be taken to stem and control, if not completely eliminate the emotional and psychological abuse that is, all too often, being inflicted on the children of this country in today's ultra-competitive, adult-centered youth sports.

In the beginning ....

In March 2011, Holly Foglietta registered her nine-year-old twins, Austin and William, for the Lynn/North Shore Comets Squirt (2001 and 2002) thirty-game travel season. As is typical in hockey-crazy Massachusetts, the twins were already hockey veterans; the season would mark their fourth in organized hockey, which began in Instructional Mite, progressed through Mite, and now a second season in Squirts.

On the morning of Saturday, January 21, 2012, with a little more than a minute remaining in a Valley League Hockey game in Tewksbury between the Comets and the '01 Boch Blazers, and with the Comets leading 4-2, Austin scored. He and his brother, who everyone acknowledges to be very competitive (and what kid isn't these days?), had been keeping track of their goals since they started in Mites when they were five, and Austin's goal was a milestone: his 200th. Austin asked the ref if he could have the puck as a souvenir.

What happened next depends on who you believe in this sorry saga. According to Austin and William, and their father, Bill, when the coach, Bill Norcross of Lynn, realized that Austin had received permission from the referee to keep the puck, he began screaming at him, yelling "Ridiculous, ridiculous, that's the most selfish thing I have ever seen." Norcross then allegedly took the puck away from Austin and threw it back on the ice, and continued to verbally demean Austin in front of his teammates, including allegedly telling him he wasn't even the best player on the team.

Bill Foglietta would later tell the local paper, the Lynn Daily Item, that what the coach did "broke my son's heart and he did it publicly. It just tore me up inside." Austin told the newspaper that he felt "shocked and then I started to get scared" when Norcross began yelling at him, so much so that he didn't want to go into the locker room with his brother after the game, where, according to what William told his father, and later his mom, Holly, Norcross continued yelling, and allegedly threw a bag of pucks at William (which missed).

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