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Bob Hohler

Carl Gray, founder of prestigious Assabet Valley hockey program, comes under fire for treatment of players

Former players say that Assabet hockey founder Carl Gray, shown watching a game last month at Valley Sports Arena in Concord, is accused of emotionally harming girls as young as 8.
Former players say that Assabet hockey founder Carl Gray, shown watching a game last month at Valley Sports Arena in Concord, is accused of emotionally harming girls as young as 8.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

CONCORD — A trailblazer in the growth of American girls’ ice hockey and the women’s US Olympic hockey program, Carl Gray has created opportunities for thousands of girls and helped guide hundreds to national championships.

But there has been a grim side to the glory. More than two dozen former players in Gray’s elite Assabet Valley Girls Hockey program told the Globe that they and other girls who were as young as 8 years old have been emotionally harmed by Gray’s profane verbal abuse, unwanted physical contact, and unannounced intrusions in their locker rooms, among other mistreatment.

They complained that Gray’s bullying and belittling have gone all but unchecked by Massachusetts Hockey, the sport’s governing body in the state, despite the organization being generally aware of it for many years.

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"Something needs to be done about Carl Gray and Assabet," said Evelyn Abayaah, a program director at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Abayaah said she and her two Black daughters, who both played for Assabet, were subjected to racially insensitive and other disturbing comments by Gray.

“What has been going on there is not right,” she said.

Gray, 82, denied mistreating any girl in his program, saying in an interview that his coaching methods are designed to induce greatness in young players, not to harm them. He said more than 10,000 girls have participated in the Assabet program, which he has owned and operated since 1972.

He said he had no recollection of the Abayaahs.

"You’re never going to be a nice guy to everybody, especially if you’re trying to develop Olympians," Gray said. "It’s not easy developing an Olympian."

Carl Gray entered a disciplinary agreement with Mass Hockey in 2016 due to his actions in front of players in 2015.
Carl Gray entered a disciplinary agreement with Mass Hockey in 2016 due to his actions in front of players in 2015.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Massachusetts Hockey would not publicly discuss Gray, instead issuing a statement defending the organization’s policies and enforcement practices.

"Any allegations of misconduct received by Massachusetts Hockey are taken seriously as the safety of Massachusetts Hockey participants is of paramount importance," the statement said.

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In 2016, Mass Hockey reached a disciplinary agreement with Gray aimed at preventing him from relieving himself again within view of girls, as occurred in 2015 at the Valley Sports Arena he owns in Concord. Gray attributed the incident to a serious urinary tract infection.

The disciplinary case, however, did not stop Gray’s harsh conduct, according to former Assabet players, coaches, and parents. One mother said she complained to Mass Hockey in 2019 after Gray allegedly made an offensive remark to her 11-year-old daughter. The mother received a reply from a vice president of the governing body in February that indicated Mass Hockey was aware of past and current concerns about Gray.

"Unfortunately, this sort of behavior exhibited by Carl Gray has occurred before and probably will again," Christine Mayer, who also chairs Mass Hockey’s discipline and SafeSport committee, wrote to the parent. The mother asked not to be identified to protect her daughter’s privacy.

Mayer also wrote that Mass Hockey had received "a number of reports that we are compiling hoping to find a way to deal with this very difficult situation . . . We believe the whole 'culture’ at Assabet needs correction."

Mayer, through Mass Hockey, declined to comment. A spokesman said Mayer’s statements were not necessarily reflective of Mass Hockey’s official position, but rather a personal opinion.

‘“It’s an incredibly highly toxic environment. It’s a tyranny, and Carl has ruled through fear, preying on the weak and innocent.”’

Fred Isbell, a former Assabet coach whose daughter participated in the program

In November, Mass Hockey suspended Assabet’s top coach, Dennis Laing, and two assistants, Bill Horan, and his daughter, Kelly Horan, for allegedly bullying and belittling seven adolescent players on their nationally ranked Under 16 girls’ team.

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A Globe story published in February on the suspensions generated grievances from other Assabet alums, coaches, and parents who blamed Gray for creating a climate in which many young girls have been emotionally damaged.

"It’s an incredibly highly toxic environment," said Fred Isbell, a former Assabet coach whose daughter participated in the program. "It’s a tyranny, and Carl has ruled through fear, preying on the weak and innocent."

‘Dark underbelly’ to success

Gray’s success on the ice is beyond dispute. His teams have won 52 national titles, and more than 300 girls who have skated in his program have received college athletic scholarships. Dozens have been selected to play for US national teams, and some have captured Olympic gold.

Gray helped to fund the first women’s world championships, in 1987, a step toward women’s hockey becoming an Olympic event in 1998. He launched the New England Girls Hockey League, which now includes more than 30 programs, and in 2004 he received USA Hockey’s William Thayer Tutt Award for his “selfless dedication to the enhancement of ice hockey at the grassroots level in the United States."

Mass Hockey inducted Gray into its Hall of Fame in 2005. He also has served both Mass Hockey and its parent group, USA Hockey, in leadership roles.

What’s more, Gray’s commitment to building the sport internationally inspired him two years ago to personally pay for more than 30 children and parents to travel for two weeks to a tournament in Beijing.

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Many of Gray’s former stars stand by him, though some were reluctant to publicly engage in a dispute over his conduct.

“I benefited a lot from growing up through the program Carl started,” an Assabet alum and former Olympian said. “Without that opportunity, I don’t know if I would have played girls’ hockey at all.”

She said of the abuse allegations, "The climate may have changed, behavior may have changed, expectations may be different now. But Assabet was my introduction to hockey and I loved every minute of it."

Carl Gray, shown in 2001, has created a program known for its success: 52 national titles, and more than 300 girls who have skated in his program have received college athletic scholarships. Some have even won Olympic medals.
Carl Gray, shown in 2001, has created a program known for its success: 52 national titles, and more than 300 girls who have skated in his program have received college athletic scholarships. Some have even won Olympic medals.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe file

Several of those who complained to the Globe said the public should know that Gray’s legacy involves more than success on the ice.

“The glitz and dazzle of [Assabet’s] medals and banners disguises the dark underbelly of a youth program gone wrong,” Greg Crawford, whose daughter Kelcey played in the program, wrote by e-mail.

Fred Isbell’s daughter, Katie, now a fifth-year journalism major at Northeastern, said she remains damaged by Gray’s treatment. She was 11 years old in 2007, she said, when Gray abruptly squeezed her biceps, ostensibly to gauge whether the pushups he had ordered her to do were having the desired effect.

"He told me if I did my pushups I would become voluptuous," Isbell said. She recalled not knowing what "voluptuous" meant.

"Is your mom voluptuous?" Isbell quoted Gray as then saying.

Isbell and her father, who said he witnessed the incident, recalled Gray then asked if Katie knew who Chesty Morgan was. Morgan was an exotic dancer and adult entertainment star who gained a measure of fame in the 1970s and ‘80s because of her 73-inch bust. Katie had never heard of her.

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Several other former players said Gray referred to Morgan in discussing their physiques. Sarah Doxsey said she was 12 in 2003 when Gray began calling her “Chesty Morgan” because she was developing faster than other girls.

"Girls who are going through puberty are already insecure about their bodies and how they’re changing," Doxsey said. "To have him calling you this name, you just wanted to hide under a rock."

Gray said of the complaints, “I’m not denying they said it, but it doesn’t fit the kind of person I am. It’s not in my character to be demeaning about girls’ looks. If you do that, you destroy them.”

Katie Isbell said she was hurt less by the Morgan remarks than by Gray berating her so severely in front of her teammates after a loss that she "never felt so horrible about myself." She left the Assabet program soon after.

"At 25, I’m still trying to get back my self-esteem," Isbell said. "I don’t want to say Carl Gray ruined my life, but I still have nightmares about him."

‘“I don’t want to say Carl Gray ruined my life, but I still have nightmares about him.”’

Katie Isbell, former Assabet Valley player

Fred Isbell said he lodged three verbal complaints with Keri-Anne Allan, who was then a vice president of Mass Hockey and was later president. Isbell said Allan told him, "We’re very aware of all of this, but no one will go on the record, so we can’t do anything."

Isbell said he responded, "If you want me to go on the record, I will."

He said, "I never heard another word about it."

Allan, through Mass Hockey, declined to comment. A spokesman said Allan did not recall such exchanges with Isbell and would have acted on any formal complaint.

Accounts of tirades, insults

To Gray, the former players and parents criticizing him either misunderstood his coaching methods or were disappointed about their development.

"If some of these people think their little Mary should have been made into an Olympian, that’s tough," he said. "That’s just the way it is."

Gray said he has always strived for excellence, both in his 25-year career as an engineer at Charles Stark Draper Lab, where he worked on the space program, and in his 50 years as a hockey coach and leader.

Yet many former players said Gray has gone too far with some of his player evaluation techniques. Most methods have involved physical contact. Beyond squeezing biceps, they said, he has clasped their hands or touched their cheeks and told them to stare into his eyes.

Many others have been subject to an exercise he describes as "Mr. Gray’s two quarters." Doxsey said she was about 10 years old in 2002 when Gray directed her to look him in the eyes and try to pry two quarters out of his clenched fist.

"It was a psychological power thing for him," said Doxsey, who won two national titles with Assabet teams and later captained Lexington High School’s team. "As an adult now, it’s crazy to reflect on those memories and realize how sick and twisted it all was."

Playing in Gray’s program "ruined my self-esteem and love for the sport," Doxsey said. "It was the worst feeling ever."

Meghan Harvey said she also was no more than 10 when she submitted to the two-quarters indoctrination from Gray in 2006.

"I was terrified of him," Harvey said, "which is exactly what he wanted."

‘“I was terrified of him, which is exactly what he wanted.”’

Meghan Harvey, ex-Assabet player

Gray said the practice was not aimed to intimidate but to enable him to determine each player’s potential.

"I have a very good eye for talent," he said. "I can tell you what a person is going to be like at 22 or 24 by looking in their eyes when they’re 9 or 10."

In addition to receiving unwanted physical contact, many former players said, their privacy was violated by Gray.

"He would just walk into the locker room whenever he wanted, no knock on the door, no two-minute warning, no making sure you were covered up," Doxsey said. "He would just walk in and start yelling."

Kelcey Crawford, who played for Assabet in the late 2000s and later was a Division 3 All-American at Elmira College, said, "Girls would be trying to cover themselves, and he was like, 'Don’t worry, I’ve seen it all before.’ "

Gray denied acting inappropriately.

"I’ve always tried to have a female, if possible, or at least another male with me" in the locker room, he said.

Gray’s postgame tirades, purportedly often laced with expletives, are legendary among former Assabet players and coaches.

Doxsey recalled, "He yelled so hard that he’d spit in your face, and you couldn’t react because then it would get even worse. You went home and cried about it."

Annie Nero said she was 12, on her second day in the program, when Gray assailed her for not getting on the ice quickly enough.

“I vividly remember the smell of his breath and the redness of his face just inches from mine as he made a very public example of me,” she wrote by e-mail. “I will never forget the feeling of tears running down my face as I sat there humiliated.”

‘“I will never forget the feeling of tears running down my face as I sat there humiliated.”’

Annie Nero, ex-Assabet player, on Carl Gray's comments to her when she was 12

Other girls recalled Gray demeaning players because of their physical appearances. They said Gray has accused girls of eating too many French fries and ordered them to skate sprints in front of their teams as punishment.

"There’s a lot of public shaming, like putting a dog’s nose in something," Crawford said.

Harvey said, "It’s something you think you get over, but it turns out it still affects you."

Several girls said they feigned illnesses to avoid attending practices and facing Gray’s wrath.

"As a child just beginning to figure out who I was, Carl Gray’s verbal and emotional beating regrettably became one of the most formative experiences of my young life," Nero wrote.

Nero eventually left the program. So did Katya Kalogeropoulos’s 12-year-old daughter after Gray repeatedly berated her, including loudly asking her in 2017 in front of her teammates "if she did not listen because she is Greek or brain dead," her mother said.

Gray denied saying anything offensive. He said he has not meant to insult young girls, even in warning them not to end up "pregnant and barefoot in the kitchen." He noted that he has long stressed the importance of education.

Getting her daughters out

Former players say that Carl Gray would shame them in front of teammates.
Former players say that Carl Gray would shame them in front of teammates.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

When Abayaah, a native of Ghana, enrolled her two daughters in the Assabet program around 2014, they were rare players of color. Abayaah said that when she complained to Gray about humiliating her daughters in front of others, he told her, “You’re lucky kids from Nigeria get to play hockey.”

"I’m not from Nigeria," she recalled saying. She quoted Gray as replying, "Wherever you’re from, it’s all around the same area anyway."

"It was so ridiculous and offensive," Abayaah said. "I thought maybe we didn’t belong there because we were a family of color. I didn’t realize until later that the problem was more widespread."

‘“I thought maybe we didn’t belong there because we were a family of color. I didn’t realize until later that the problem was more widespread.”’

Evelyn Abayaah, a native of Ghana whose two daughters were enrolled in the Assabet program in 2014

Abayaah said she confronted Gray about his behavior, and he told her, "You have an accent. Go learn English before you talk to me."

Abayaah, who holds two master’s degrees, said she considered the comments racist. She wanted to file a complaint and believed the proper organization was the New England Girls Hockey League. But when she visited its website, she said, she was shocked to discover Gray was the league’s commissioner.

She said she did not know then that Mass Hockey was the governing body. So she pulled her daughters out of the program.

"It’s such a shame because Carl has done so much for women’s hockey," Abayaah said. "But he is destroying his own organization."

Gray said he recognizes that tolerance for some of his coaching techniques has waned.

“I understand that it’s different today with the 'Me Too’ movement,” he said.

Gray said he is transitioning out of his leadership role at Assabet and plans to hire a director to replace him, possibly a former Assabet player and Olympian. He said his time is short.

“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.