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My Story: Tyler Aragao

The buzzer rang at the Gallo Arena in Bourne, Massachusetts. I cowboyed over the bench, skated towards the rest of my team, and went through the handshake line. Our season had ended at the hands of Plymouth South High School. We lost 5-1, and to be honest with you, I don’t really remember how the game even played out on the ice. I was adrift. Somewhere else. A much happier place, too.

You see, hockey used to be my happy place. But for the previous two months, that wasn’t the case.

It was my senior year, and after we got into the locker room, I think I was one of few people who didn’t shed a single tear. If anything, I was so relieved that it was finally over. I wouldn’t have to practice or play with this group ever again; I was finally free. Free of the torment, the harassment, all of it. The most toxic experience I ever went through was finally over with, and I could finally move on, graduate from high school, and move off to college.

Only, it was never easy going forward.

My hockey career died long before that playoff game in Bourne, and along with it a lot of me went with it. The lingering effects I dealt with in my post-hockey life didn’t go away, and it exacerbated a lot of other issues I had with my self-esteem and confidence.

All I wanted to do was be the best person and goalie I could be. Gradually, over the course of my senior season, it became apparent as to what was happening, and I realized that it was too late to change any of it. But that doesn’t make it right.

So, some backtracking really quick to set the scene.

I was one of two natural senior goaltenders (guys that were part of the team for four full years), and there was another kid who was a grade level above us, but he stayed back as a sophomore (my freshman year). This put us in the same grade, but I was always under the impression that in high school you’re only allowed four years of athletic eligibility. Yet, in the fall of 2015, there he was at tryouts.

So, there are now three “senior” goalies competing for one net, and you know what? There's nothing wrong with fair competition in my mind. In fact, competition is great for the position and makes us better. The only thing was, this was no fair competition; it seemed that things were predetermined that he would be the starter. They’d give me a chance but the second I’d falter it was Game Over for me.

We split playing time early on and it seemed OK to those outside the room. He started the first two games and won, then I started the next two and won. This repeated and next thing you know we’re sitting at an 8-0-0 record. So, the platooning is working, right? If only it were that smooth.

We weren’t the cushiest of partners and although I never had a great relationship with him or the trio of senior captains, I was naïve enough to believe that they would do what was best for the team: the goalie who earned the right to start should start. I always worked as hard as I could to be that guy, but as I type this and reflect, there are so many instances.

One of the first signs came when I started the home opener against King Philip. That was awesome. I had never played a home regular-season game, and the atmosphere was electric. I played well and was feeling great. My dad was in his usual spot, behind the net and to the corner, and my friends were in the student section, it was a great time and we won as well. I almost secured the shutout, but they scored late in the third off a scramble in the crease. Little did I know how this one goal would become so significant. I remember vividly how we broke it down on film.

It kind of bugged me, but I just assumed coach had seen something he didn’t like with how we were playing that led to the goal, but then in the following practice we had virtually a “no puck” practice and skated for the majority due to this goal. This is when my teammates began to give me grief.

I heard, “Aragao is flopping around,” and “What were you even trying to do there,” etc.

I took the criticism in stride and just moved on to the next game. They would criticize my play, literally coach me mid-game and during practice. “Aragao, I’ve been telling you since the beginning of the year to stay up on your feet.” This whole narrative of me “dropping down too early” and “flopping around” became things they’d hammer away at me. Over time, it finally broke me.

In my last full high school game ever played, we were going up against Needham at Babson College. I felt I was playing really, really well. I was busy early in the first period, kept the team in it, and allowed for us to stake out a lead. I felt really comfortable and then they cut a 3-1 lead to 3-2. It was a two-on-one rush, shot came off my far pad, I pushed across and the attacking winger fired the rebound back on goal, and it went off my pad and in. Tough rebound, oh well, forget and reset. Only instead of coming up to me after the goal with a “hey Ty don’t worry about it” my captain came up to me and said, “stop kicking pucks out you need to control rebounds better.” Man, it took everything out of me…

I think I stopped like 29-31, something like that in a 4-2 win. I didn’t think that it would be my final full game of the season. I was personally 4-0-0, and yet I felt so freaking low. It didn’t matter my record, or the team's record, or my stats. I felt like I would never be good enough. I was down, but not out, and so the objective from them shifted to make sure I was out. Shooting pucks at my head or to the back of my leg were commonplace at practice, rearranging my gear in my stall, hiding my sticks, and seemingly always looking for something negative to say.

The other goalie was getting shutouts and started getting consecutive starts. My head coach loved - and I mean loved - getting shutouts. Conveniently the other goalie had I think one shutout where he actually had to make 20+ saves. But hey, we’re playing well, not giving up any goals, for the good of the team I’ll swallow my pride and I’ll be the good teammate I always prided myself on being. That’s where I was the biggest of fools. I kept soldiering on, thinking that my hard work and being a “good teammate” would show out in the end; it never did. They were never good teammates to me, never picked me up or supported me, and yet there I was, desperately trying to earn the net back and their respect by supporting them.

I would get one last shot at saving my season when I suited up in my hometown of Fall River, MA to face off against Somerset. However, what happened next was the worst possible case. In the same rink where I learned to skate, in the same rink where I first played organized hockey, in the rink I won my first ever game as a goalie, in the same rink is where my hockey career died, I was pulled from the game. That hurt me more than ever. I gave up three goals on 14 shots, two of which were stoppable. When my coach gave me the word I wasn’t going back in when I got back into the room the first thing my teammates said was, “So are you going back out?”

After that game, I realized that they didn’t have my back and that their criticisms both in games and in practices stemmed from them trying to put me down so their friend could be lifted. As the season rolled on that became the theme and the rink became my personal hell.

It was something new every day. My name tag would be in a different stall, my helmet or gloves moved around, my pads rearranged, or my stick being hidden. Every day I went to that rink it was torture. On the ice was no different. The captains, the so-called “leaders,” my teammates harassed me. They made sure to tell me I sucked, or I wasn’t good enough, or I was “just a backup,” that was their favorite line. These were my “captains,” team leaders, how the hell do you stand up to them? And before you say, “that’s when you go to coach!” I did go to the coach, guess what, he was worse than the lot of them. How? Because he was the enabler.

I decided to talk to my coach when I reached my breaking point. Everyone who has ever been bullied or harassed knows there’s just a certain point where you can’t take it anymore. For me, this occurred after a practice. At this point, I hadn’t started in the last handful of games and I felt that no matter what I was doing in practice it wasn’t translating to playing time. I was getting frustrated and my emotions opened another avenue up to be tormented.

When I’d slam my stick against the post, or show distaste after a bad goal, they’d be sure to bring it up when we’d go for water. Whether it was critiquing my mental strength, calling me “soft” or a “pussy,” or just saying I couldn’t stop a thing, they made sure to say something. At the end of practice, we’re doing a drill where we had to stop the puck behind the net and make a pass up the boards. I’ve done a few reps and since it is towards the end of practice, I’m feeling the fatigue.

Meanwhile, the other goalie is just there in center ice taking a knee and I’m trying to flag him over to relieve me. That never happened, so I continue with the reps and I get sloppier and sloppier and eventually, I miss a puck completely. My coach flips and makes me do 25 up-downs for every miss. Sure, enough I’m more tired now and miss again, another 25, by now I’m in tough shape and as I’m going up and down he tells me, “You’d think with your lack of ice time your work ethic would be better but it flat out sucks.”

That’s where it hit me, I was working, I was putting in the time, effort, extra reps, I was trying to show that I had some fire in me and with one line my coach shot it all down. As we got off the ice he told me he’d report to my head coach what he saw in practice and I already knew that booked a one-way ticket to left bench for the next game. As I was getting undressed, I felt sick and I really had to fight back the urge to cry. So much shit was going on, my emotions were boiling up and I didn’t know what else to do. I had hit a wall. I didn’t know what else to do, I felt helpless, I felt I had no one, I felt true loneliness.

So, my dad pulls up to the rink in his red jeep and I load my stuff into it. I get into the front seat and as my dad always does, he asks me how my day was. We pulled out of the parking lot set to head home and after the first few words come out of my mouth I immediately just start to cry. It’s the only thing I could do. I just let it all out and that’s when my dad opted to make this move. It was either go home or go back to talk to the coach. We elected to talk to the coach. Now, my dad has expressed his regrets about this move, but to me, it was something I had to do, it was something I had to try.

I tried to explain to my coach how I feel the leaders of this team favor one guy in net more than me, I wasn’t trying to be a victim, I wasn’t trying to use it as an excuse for not playing, I was just trying to make myself heard and I genuinely thought he’d have my back… That day I learned; you can’t rely on people like that. He listened to an extent, talked about my last start, and even said he didn’t think the goals were my fault, I felt he had listened, and I thought this would change things. The funny thing was it made them worse.

He didn’t do a thing. He knows it too; he knew what was going on in that locker room and damn well allowed it. Does it surprise me now? No. If you were in his camp you were golden and believe me it wasn’t just me that was outside his favor. I know I’ve gone back a lot in this story but I’m going to go back to my junior season, we’re playing Somerset, and this was a rocky game. A fight actually broke out and the referee was about to assess a penalty to who he thought was #3, instead of #23 one of our captains. #3 was a fourth-liner who was hardly used my junior year, he was a great guy and he always hooked me up with rides to practices, my coach, however, instead of correcting the ref had #3 take the fall and this kid who barely played served a Game Misconduct and a suspension. I see now that my coach like many in the youth and high school level played the favorites game heavily. He had his camp of loyal, “I’ll start your truck up,” players, but I wasn’t one of them. I was on the outside with my “teammates” and I was given up by my coaches. The freshman kid who was ready to pay his dues did so, but reaped none of it.

Worst of all, I felt there was nobody I could go to, no way to make the situation better.

It took a while but after graduating high school I did make my own situation better. Life since has taken me to some great places. I go to Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH. I still play hockey locally in Walpole and Foxboro, MA over the summer. I’m also the official voice of our D-II men’s hockey team and our D-I women’s hockey team. I’m majoring in Sports Media and aspire to become a hockey broadcaster. I’ve made so many incredible memories in college, I’ve seen tremendous growth in myself, and I’ve literally found my voice. The quiet, timid kid who got trampled over in high school is gone and I’m so glad for that. I’m going to be graduating from college in a few months.

You might be saying, "Dude. Let it go already” and believe me, I have. I’ve put a lot of work going forward to make sure that this never happens to me again. Talking about this experience has been extremely helpful in me moving on with life as a whole. I think that talking about things is so helpful; not hiding from the things that bother us and finding people who we trust to just listen.

When The Goalie Guild initiated the Lift the Mask program, I thought to myself, “Wow. I wish I had lifted my own mask sooner.” I actually emailed Justin Goldman for advice during that season and the advice he gave is something I’ve carried with me to this day.

“Do your thing, be prepared, but smile, smile, smile.”

Making that conscious decision to be happy, reaching out, and talking to those who could help me were simple things that really did help me in the long run. I can only hope to inspire more athletes, goalies, and anyone who reads this to “lift your mask” as well, because I promise if you do, someone will be here to listen and help you, too.

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