SAGINAW, Mich. — Jim Paliafito stands in the parking lot outside of the Dow Event Center, asking one question, over and over again. It’s a question that will never be answered.
“Why?” asks the general manager of the Saginaw Spirit, choking up.
“It’s the last thing I think about when I go to bed at night and the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning.”
Why did Terry Trafford take his own life after being cut from the Ontario Hockey League club for a violation of team rules, ending a stay of four years with the Spirit?
Less than two weeks after Trafford’s death in this city of close to 51,000 residents, Paliafito, head coach Greg Gilbert and team president Craig Goslin sat down with Yahoo Sports in a boardroom at the Dow Event Center to answer some of the questions about the 20-year-old’s final days.
Goslin, who is a part-owner of the Spirit and was billeting Trafford until his release from the team, would not say what Trafford was being punished for – only that it was confidential. In earlier reports, Trafford’s girlfriend, Skye Cieszlak, told reporters he had been caught partying and smoking marijuana earlier in February. Trafford’s last game with the Spirit was on Feb. 17.
Both Gilbert and Paliafito said they wanted to bring the centre back to the team on March 2 after sending him home as punishment for the February incident. It was on March 1 that Gilbert said he received a call from Paliafito letting him know they were being “overruled” by ownership. Goslin said he and fellow owner Dick Garber decided to send Trafford home for the rest of the season following a discussion that lasted well over an hour.
“There was some additional information that came to ownership that we thought was detrimental to the culture of our franchise and our team overall,” said Goslin, who had been billeting Trafford since September.
When asked again, Goslin would not divulge what additional information prompted him to send home the young man he fondly remembered sharing family meals with and who helped him shovel the driveway after a big snowstorm.
Paliafito was given the task of breaking the news to the Traffords, but contrary to other reports, he said he never told the player about the team’s decision – either by voicemail or text message. He instead left messages for Trafford’s father, Roy, and spoke with Trafford’s agent, Joel Robillos.
“I thought I should talk to an adult,” Paliafito explained.
According to the GM, it was Robillos who gave Trafford the news about his dismissal from the team. Multiple messages left for Robillos were not returned.
Trafford, who was at home in Toronto when he received the news, drove back to Saginaw to collect his things. On March 3, he had a short exit interview with Gilbert, who invited Trafford to work out at the summer skates he runs to prepare for next year – whether that was with the Spirit or another team in the OHL.
“He didn’t say much,” said Gilbert, who coached Trafford for two-and-a-half seasons. “He looked me right straight in the eyes and stood up. He didn’t seem sad, he didn’t seem happy, he didn’t seem anything. Kind of stoic, I guess you could say, but he shook my hand and said ‘thanks’ and went down for his physical with the trainers.”
In the meantime, Paliafito said he had been trying to find a spot for Trafford on a team in the Central Hockey League so he could finish out his season. Cieszlak had told Yahoo Sports in an earlier interview Trafford “was completely devastated” by being sent home because he felt his hockey career was over.
“I told him to get ready for next season,” said Gilbert. “He was not done playing hockey.”
“We never took him off our roster,” added Paliafito. “We kept him on our roster until after the funeral. So I don’t know the answer to that … I told (Roy) I would help him.”
Trafford’s body was found on March 11, eight days after he left the Spirit dressing room for the last time.
According to Michigan State Police, the investigation into Trafford’s death has not officially been closed, though the determination in the cause of death – self-inflicted asphyxiation - is not expected to change. Police are still awaiting the toxicology report and would not comment on whether any drugs or drug paraphernalia were found at the scene.
Trafford’s body was found in his truck in the back parking lot of a Walmart, only a few miles from the Dow Event Center. It was his green GMC Sierra that was noticed by a local patrol.
“Our trooper went over to it and discovered Mr. Trafford in the truck,” said Lt. Brian Cole on Wednesday.
“It was in the back lot so most of your traffic is going to be in the front entry area where most people are doing their regular shopping and stuff like that. It was in an area of the parking lot where that (shopping traffic) doesn’t occur.”
A missing persons report was filed with Michigan State Police on March 9. A report had been filed earlier with Toronto police in Trafford’s hometown. In any missing persons case, time is of the essence, so why did it take six days for the Spirit to put out a release acknowledging Trafford was even missing?
“We were given information from authorities that he was in Ontario,” said Goslin. “That’s why his friends and family were gathered at (the Traffords’) home. That’s why Toronto police were involved, because the information we were given from authorities at the border was that he had crossed over (the border) and was in Ontario.
“We thought he was in Ontario, so why would you release something here locally?”
Both the team and the OHL have come under criticism for their handling of the situation and seemingly indifferent approach to Trafford’s disappearance and the news of his death.
“Not for a second did I not care about Terry or where he was - not for one second,” said Gilbert, wiping away tears. “I was running through parking ramps looking for his car.”
Neither Gilbert nor Paliafito attended Trafford’s funeral. According to the GM, the entire team, including support staff, had attended a visitation two days earlier at the suggestion of Roy Trafford, because of the small room at a Toronto funeral home. Eight or nine Spirit players attended the funeral with Goslin and his wife, Garber and the team chaplain. Goslin said the coach and GM stayed behind with their remaining players on the advice of a grief counselor.
“It was not out of disrespect or guilt or anything like that,” said Gilbert of missing the funeral.
“That’s something that really tears me apart,” added Paliafito, referring to the inference that the Spirit distanced themselves from the late player.
There are still many questions, but no amount of finger-pointing, second-guessing or tears will bring Terry Trafford back to answer them. The most anyone can hope for now in the aftermath of this heartbreak for the Traffords is to try to prevent it from happening to another family, to another teammate, to another player under a team’s watch.
“You can run wherever you want – you can run to the top of Mount Everest if you want – but it’s still going to be there, it’s not going away. You have to face it and overcome it and learn from it,” said Gilbert, as tears filled his eyes again.
“You have to be better for it.”