For One Hockey Family, Impact Of Alleged Abuse At A Top Canadian Prep School Lingers

TSN Senior Correspondent


Warning: This story contains graphic content and language that may be upsetting to some readers.

Todd Tisdale arrived on the campus of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in the fall of 1986, excited at the chance to mature and develop his hockey skills at a prairie boarding school famous for grooming talent.

Todd's older brother, Tim, had attended Notre Dame a year earlier, helping the team secure a national championship before going on to win the 1989 Memorial Cup with the Swift Current Broncos and later play pro hockey in the Edmonton Oilers’ farm system.

While then-15-year-old Todd wasn't good enough to play for the school’s top-level Hounds, he hoped that playing on one of its development teams might lead to a stint in junior hockey.

But only six weeks after arriving at the school in Wilcox, Sask., Todd phoned his mother, saying he needed her to pick him up. He was quitting school.

“Todd was so excited to go to Notre Dame, a happy-go-lucky teenager, so full of love and fun,” Todd’s mother Linda Tisdale said in an interview.

That all changed in a matter of weeks. Until now, Todd has never shared the full extent of what he says happened to him at Notre Dame.

Todd says he was the victim of a series of vicious sexual, physical and psychological assaults during his brief time at Notre Dame, incidents that he says continue to scar him 35 years later. Todd says he has been fighting to get an apology from officials and an acknowledgement of what he claims happened to him on campus since 1999, when he first contacted the school about his alleged abuse.

“I want to give a voice to students who attended Notre Dame who were abused,” Todd said in an interview. “I want to give myself closure after years of mental anguish because of my experiences at the school. I’m hoping by telling my story that others will not be ashamed to come forward with their own experiences. I want the school to be accountable for the abuse that happened to me there.”

Todd filed a negligence lawsuit against the school in 2018 in Regina, but the litigation stalled because his attorney fell ill.

Spencer Edwards, a Saskatoon-based attorney, told TSN he now represents Todd but has not reviewed all the court filings.

“In 2018, Todd Tisdale started a lawsuit naming Athol Murray College of Notre Dame as the only Defendant, claiming damages for abuse he is alleged to have suffered at the hands of other students while he was a student in 1986,” Notre Dame president Rob Palmarin wrote in an emailed statement.

“The lawsuit has been defended and is still before the Court. Athol Murray College of Notre Dame cannot comment further on this matter publicly at this time while the lawsuit is still underway.”

Notre Dame asked a court in a Dec. 10 filing to direct Todd to be questioned about his allegations by the school's attorney in Regina next February. Notre Dame wrote that it was willing to pay Todd $1,156 for four days’ worth of expenses related to the questioning.

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Todd said he went to the school nurse because of the random beatings at least twice a week, his parents were never notified by the school about what was happening.

In a separate Dec. 10 court filing, Notre Dame wrote that the location of Todd's school records is unknown and that it's also unknown when those documents went missing.

Palmarin refused to answer specific questions about Todd's allegations.

Todd said he arrived at Notre Dame from his family home in Swift Current, Sask., on Sept. 7, 1986, was assigned to a dormitory, and was given a timetable to begin Grade 11 courses. He eagerly looked up the dates for hockey tryouts.

Todd understood that his hockey talent might never approach that of his brother, who played a season earlier for Notre Dame’s famous Hounds team that toured North America, played top competition, and won a national championship. Even so, Todd said he figured that with the right coaching, he might develop into a player who’d do well in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

But within his first few hours on the school’s remote campus, Todd’s attention was whipsawed away from thoughts of the rink.

Todd says he was advised by other students about Notre Dame’s hazing culture, where returning students would have control over the “new boys.” If a senior student wanted anything from chocolate milk, a pizza pop, or laundry dropped off to be cleaned, the “new boys” were expected to comply.

A few weeks into the school year, Todd said the beatings started. It was around the time Todd said he tried out for and secured a spot on Notre Dame’s team in the provincial Father David Bauer League, a Double-A league that played in the shadow of the Hounds.

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Decades later, the Tisdales still struggle to process Todd’s abuse and how it has affected every aspect of their lives.

“Guys would call me into a room, they would trash-talk another student, get me to say bad things about another student behind his back,” Todd said. “I’d have to call him a ‘jerk-off’ or a ‘dink’, and then the boy we were insulting would jump out of a closet and start punching me. The other three guys laughed watching him beat on me. I had bruising on my arms, ribs and shoulders and went to the school nurse and told her what happened. She looked me over and let me go without any follow up.”

Todd said he would be randomly attacked while walking down the hallway of his dorm, punched in the chest or stomach, “having the wind knocked out of me… I eventually was afraid to enter and walk down the hallways of the dorms. It got so bad that I was afraid to leave my room.”

Todd said he went to the school nurse because of the random beatings at least twice a week, his parents were never notified by the school about what was happening.

Todd said his abuse intensified as he spent more time on campus. He said one boy urinated on him while he was in a shower stall.

“We had hot [plates] in our dorm rooms,” Todd said. “One day, I was called into another dorm room to eat some Kraft Dinner. The boys had cooked it with their own piss [instead of water] and I was forced to eat it. I knew that they had cooked it in piss but was too afraid not to eat it. There was no choice.”

Another day, Todd said he didn’t make his bed and was put on “workout detail.”

At 10 p.m. that evening, he said he and several other younger students were escorted by four older students to the TV room, where the dorm supervisor was sitting.

The senior students surrounded the younger ones, Todd said, and demanded they start doing push-ups and then the “Roman chair, which is where you put your back to the wall and squat down, knees at 90-degree angle, and hold the position. All the time, we were forced to drink warm water, they got out towels, wet them and ‘rat-tailed us’ [snapped them with wet towels]. We were hit in the body at least five times. I did sit-ups and push-ups until I vomited in a five-gallon barrel that was in the room.”

The dorm supervisor walked out of the TV room 30 minutes after the hazing began without saying anything, Todd said.

On other occasions, Todd says he was choked by a senior student until he passed out and forced to give senior students massages with lotion on their shoulders, arms and chest.

“Some of them would ask for ‘snaky fingers,’ where I would take the tops of my fingernails and drag them down their backs lightly,” Todd said. “It was done in a very sexual manner that would take anywhere from five to 10 minutes or until they told me to stop. Sometimes some of the boys would want me to massage their buttocks. They would pull their pants down slightly and tell me to massage their bare buttocks.”

In October 1986, Todd said he was in his dorm room when a senior student grabbed him and dragged him into another room where around 10 students were sitting on the four bunk beds.

“There was already a student standing near the east side of the room about five feet from the wall with his pants undone and a shoe string around his penis,” Todd said. “He looked scared. I didn’t say anything. I was told to stand facing the other student and to unzip my pants and expose my own penis. I did. A senior boy handled my penis and tied the other end of the string that was attached to the other boy’s penis to mine. We were both told to pull backwards until our backs hit the wall behind us. We were not allowed to use our hands. The one whose back touched the wall would be the winner.”

Todd said he started to pull back and after a minute, the skin on his penis was stretching and starting to bleed.

“My back hit the wall,” Todd said. “Because I was declared to be the winner, I removed the string from my penis and was allowed to leave. The other boy had to stay and have another fight with someone else… I didn’t go to the nurse. I was done with her by this point.”

On Nov. 1, Todd left the school and spent the night at his girlfriend’s home in Regina.

Three Notre Dame students sent by school administrators drove to Regina and took Todd back to school. The following day, Todd said, his mother arrived to take him home.

Before he had a chance to leave the school, the dorm supervisor told Todd and his mother that he was being expelled for leaving the school without permission and that his alleged abuse was being investigated.

Correspondence between Todd and former Notre Dame president Terry O’Malley establishes that Todd first brought forward his abuse complaints to the school 13 years after he left the school.

“I was at Notre Dame in 1999 when you brought our attention to your ongoing stressful situation,” O’Malley wrote in a Nov. 17, 2004, letter to Todd. “The College asked the RCMP to investigate with the prospect of charges being laid on the lads involved… nothing came of it.

“I will put your request for action to our own counsel and ask for advice.”

Todd says he never heard back from O’Malley.

O’Malley, now an assistant hockey coach at the University of Regina, said in an interview that he assumed Notre Dame's legal department would handle Todd's complaint. He said he was sorry for not responding.

"I don't see why the school can't apologize to Todd for what happened," O'Malley said. "I apologize to him right now for not getting back to him."

Tim said he thinks the school blacklisted the Tisdale family after Todd’s complaints. After leaving Notre Dame, Tim was a member of the Swift Current Broncos’ Memorial Cup-winning team in 1989. Then he played seven years of pro hockey, mostly in the American and East Coast Hockey Leagues.

“Notre Dame has recognized every alumnus who went on to play pro hockey of any kind, every player but me,” Todd said. “You won’t find a picture of me anywhere on that campus.”

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Correspondence between Todd and O’Malley establishes that Todd first brought forward his abuse complaints to the school 13 years after he left the school.

Decades later, the Tisdales still struggle to process Todd’s abuse and how it has affected every aspect of their lives.

“Notre Dame’s motto is struggle and emerge,” Todd said. “What happened to me takes that to a whole new level.”

Tim feels like he has lost his brother.

“We haven’t had a lot of conversations about what happened to him at Notre Dame,” Tim said. “He was never the same person after going there. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him smile.”

As an adult, Todd has drifted between both jobs and relationships and has had a hard time establishing trust with anyone.

About a year ago, Tim asked former NHL player and sexual abuse survivor Theoren Fleury to speak with Todd about his struggles. Fleury said he talks to Todd two or three times every week.

"He's like the thousands of people who have shared their stories of abuse with me," Fleury said. "As much as we want to suppress it and not talk about it, you can't tell me that abuse isn't one of the epidemics on the planet."

Fleury said he's disappointed that Notre Dame has refused to apologize to Todd.

"What they are doing is typical if you look at Penn State and USA Gymnastics and the Chicago Blackhawks," Fleury said. "It's almost like they have a script. First denial, then try to get rid of the story as quickly as possible. Am I shocked they won't apologize? No. If this was a Notre Dame graduate like Rod Brind'Amour or Curtis Joseph it might be different. But it's not. It's Todd Tisdale."

Linda Tisdale said she worries about Todd's future.

“Todd was the happiest member of our family as a boy,” she said. “What happened to him at Notre Dame forever changed all of us, sent him into a spiral of depression that he still struggles with today. He’s struggled to even find a doctor who can help him. He struggles every single day of his life.”

Linda Tisdale said she contacted Notre Dame’s Palmarin on Aug. 25, 2015, after Todd returned from hospital following one of several suicide attempts.

“I wanted answers, Todd wanted answers,” she said. “Rob Palmarin told me they couldn’t find any of his school records, couldn’t find any record of him being at the school and suggested I just contact the provincial ministry of education. Then he said that I might be happy to know this [hazing] doesn’t happen anymore. How can he say that 100 per cent? And how could he think I would be happy? This horrible situation with Todd has been on my mind all the time for so long.”

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For one hockey family, impact of alleged abuse at a top Canadian prep school lingers


For one hockey family, impact of alleged abuse at a top Canadian prep school lingers