Change the sport, plead parents of youth suing hockey school in Ontario over alleged bullying
A Cambridge, Ont., family is suing a Kitchener hockey academy over allegations their son was mercilessly bullied by fellow students to the point it damaged his reputation and chances of doing well in the sport.
Gail and Brian DeCaluwe say the bullying escalated from on-ice taunts and hiding equipment, to the arrest of their son Lucas after false claims he was planning a shooting at the school.
His family is suing Victus Academy, a private school and hockey academy for students in Grades 5 to 12, and three students who attended the school during Lucas's time there.
In the $5.5-million lawsuit's statement of claim, the DeCaluwe family alleges the school knew about the bullying Lucas was facing, but didn't do enough to stop it.
"One of my conversations with the staff was, I was told I was being too dramatic, that the boys are just being boys. And to me, that was a very sad statement because that type of behaviour is not typical," Brian said.
The academy has not yet filed a statement of defence in the case. But in an emailed statement to CBC News, the academy's management said it will be "fully defending itself against this claim as we are an academic and athletic school that reinforces respectful behaviour every day in all that we do."
The email said a statement of defence "is in the early stages of preparation." The academy's management declined a request for an interview as the case is now before the courts.
CBC News was unable to reach the three students named in the civil suit or their lawyer. They also have not yet filed a statement of defence.
None of the allegations in the DeCaluwes' statement of claim or made in interviews for this story have been proven in court.
Parents allege bullying behaviour
Lucas did not speak to CBC News for this story as his parents say he's focusing on his mental health and hockey training. Lucas's name is included in the statement of claim and the family has OK'd using the 17-year-old's name in this story.
In an interview with CBC News, Gail and Brian said their son was bullied on a weekly basis while at Victus.
He was 11 years old when he started at the academy in 2016. His parents allege the bullying started in the first year.
"We spent a lot of time talking to the principal, to the owners, to the on-ice staff, trying to get it to stop. We had vague assurances that it would," Gail said.
Brian said Lucas told him that on the ice, other students would taunt him or slash him with their sticks. Gail said that off the ice, Lucas's equipment would be hidden or placed in the shower and soaked with water.
Lucas had an Instagram account where he posted photos of his cat and motivational quotes.
"Someone decided that it was a smart thing to 'meow' at him," Brian said, adding that meowing went beyond the school and happened during minor hockey games, too.
Lucas had an affiliation with a Junior B team in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, and Brian said that seemed to fuel jealousy among some of the other students. Gail said they would question Lucas's abilities and attack his confidence.
Already a quiet kid, the DeCaluwes said, Lucas became more introverted. Brian said that after one game, Lucas admitted to not playing as hard as he could for fear that if he did well, the bullies would gang up on him the next day at school.
The parents considered pulling Lucas out of the school.
"But the hockey director said he has a good chance he might get drafted to the [Ontario Hockey League]. He would like to work with [Lucas] for another year," Brian said. "I guess that was enticement for us to reconsider as a family."
Arrest at gunpoint
On Oct. 2, 2019, Brian was driving Lucas to an appointment with a sports psychologist in Kitchener, but stopped at the bank first.
"Just as I got out of the vehicle, three cruisers came to a screeching halt. I was pushed to the side," Brian recalled.
Police demanded to know who was in the vehicle and whether there were any weapons.
"I said, 'What's this all about?' And they were telling me to be quiet," Brian said.
He watched as Lucas was handcuffed.
"I'm upset, crying. He's sitting in the cruiser. I remember, the hardest thing for me, he said, 'Help me, daddy,'" Brian said, his voice thick with emotion.
"I felt that I failed him as a father because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know what to do."
At police headquarters, Brian and Gail were told Lucas had been arrested for threats made against other students.
They later learned another student had impersonated Lucas in a post on the social media app Snapchat a day before Lucas was arrested. In the post, the student had issued a warning that said, "Don't come to school tomorrow. I'm done with the stuff that's happening."
"This led to the false belief that Lucas was planning to murder students at Victus Academy by engaging in a shooting rampage," the DeCaluwes' statement of claim says.
In the interview with CBC, Gail said they believe the student who made the Snapchat post was trying to help Lucas, to get the bullies to back off, but the student "didn't really think through the consequences."
Lucas was charged with two counts of uttering death threats. Although the case against him was dropped in February 2020, his parents say the damage had already been done.
Aftermath of the arrest
After his arrest, Lucas was not allowed to return to Victus Academy. Due to the conditions related to his case, he was unable to play minor hockey or go to another school for seven weeks.
Lucas was diagnosed with social anxiety, which has made it difficult for him to connect with new teammates, like those on the Toronto team he's playing with now, his parents say.
As well, they allege in the statement of claim that the damage to Lucas's reputation and his hockey training has meant he has lost income, earning potential and his "competitive position" in the sport.
The statement of claim also alleges Victus Academy never investigated or disciplined the students they claim bullied Lucas.
Brian and Gail said they asked Lucas if he wanted to quit hockey, but he said no. Gail said he still has dreams of making the National Hockey League.
"There are times you see him smile on the bench and, you know, that means the world to us," Brian said.
"But it's taken a lot of counselling and a lot of hard work on his part to get there. And he knows he's still not finished that journey," Gail added.
"He just wants people to look at him for the player he is and the player he could be, and I think that's what we want to see for every kid that plays sports."
Brian also worries about how the bullying and ultimately the arrest will affect Lucas later in life.
"I'm a retired firefighter and I've seen a lot of stuff. I've seen suicides and stuff like that. And you don't want to think about that as your kid," Brian said.
"Right now we're here for him, but what happens 10 years down the road — the demons still haunt him, you know what I mean? And so that's one of my biggest fears."
Restoring his reputation
The family launched the lawsuit to restore Lucas's reputation, Gail said.
"Hoping to change the hockey culture is probably one of the other motivations in it, too, because we've lived it first hand with him and we don't want to see other people suffering with that," she said.
Michael Ettedgui is the Toronto-based personal injury lawyer representing the DeCaluwe family, and said elements of their story surprised him.
"I was astonished to hear what goes on in the world of hockey," Ettedgui said.
"I think that when the evidence is heard in court, the wider Canadian public may get a very important glimpse into what happens in minor sport, more specifically in minor hockey."
He said the case is important to restore Lucas's reputation among his peers and in the hockey world, but it's also important that those who stood by and allowed the alleged bullying to take place be held accountable.
Ettedgui said the outcome could have an impact on the whole sport, something he says is important.
"If these players continue to feel unable to bring forward their claims of bullying, then the bullying is simply not going to stop, and I think that's very important for the wider public to be aware of," he said.
Both Brian and Gail say they don't want an apology from the school.
"Apologies to me have to be heartfelt," Brian said.
Gail said they want to see changes going forward, not just at the school, but in the sport itself.
"They can't change what's happened in the past, but they can certainly fix what's going to happen in the future, on what's going on and going forward with it," she said.
"You can't tolerate these kinds of behaviours in sport. You can't tolerate it in school … it has to get better."