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BOB HOHLER

Iced out: Elite youth hockey coaches at Assabet Valley suspended after abuse complaints

 Assabet Valley girls hockey coach Dennis Laing at the NWHL All-Star Game at Warrior Ice Arena last Sunday.
Assabet Valley girls hockey coach Dennis Laing at the NWHL All-Star Game at Warrior Ice Arena last Sunday. Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

CONCORD — The head coach was not happy. Again.

“Shut up, you whiny little bitch,” Dennis Laing told a member of his elite Assabet Valley Girls Hockey Under 16 team at a practice last year, according to complaints filed with league officials by the player and several teammates.

Angry, too, were Laing’s assistant coaches, Bill Horan, and his daughter, Kelly Horan, an Assabet alum who went on to play for the University of Connecticut.

“I seriously want to punch some of you girls in the face,” Bill Horan allegedly told the players. And when they complained to their parents, the girls said, Kelly Horan profanely denigrated them as wimps.

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Now, at a storied ice rink where the nationally renowned Assabet Valley girls’ program has produced several Olympic medalists, developed hundreds of top collegiate players, and captured scores of national championships with its youth teams, Laing and the Horans have been suspended for allegedly browbeating and harshly belittling seven of their adolescent players.

Laing received a two-year suspension in November from Massachusetts Hockey, the state affiliate of USA Hockey, which governs the sport nationally. Mass Hockey found that Laing engaged in “prolonged and sustained verbal abuse [that] caused severe emotional distress” for the seven girls, who have since left the team.

The allegations, which include Laing reportedly simulating a Nazi salute in front of his players, one of them Jewish, have bitterly divided one of the nation’s premier, non-scholastic girls’ hockey teams, with players and parents presenting starkly differing portraits of Laing and the Horans.

Laing, who has coached Assabet teams to 19 national titles since the early 2000s, declined to speak to the Globe, other than to congratulate the girls who remain on the team for winning a state championship in his absence. Mass Hockey has denied his appeal, and he has an appeal pending with USA Hockey.

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Bill Horan also was suspended for two years and chose not to appeal. He declined to be interviewed but said by e-mail that no one in his 17 years volunteering as an Assabet Valley coach had previously filed a complaint against him. He said the players who remain on the team had “wanted us to continue to coach the rest of the season.”

“I wish all of the girls involved the best of luck going forward,” Horan said.

Bill Horan and his daughter Kelly, right, were also suspended by Mass Hockey.
Bill Horan and his daughter Kelly, right, were also suspended by Mass Hockey.

Kelly Horan, 29, was suspended until April and did not appeal. She declined to comment beyond praising the players who “stayed and fought for the coaches to continue coaching their team.”

Mass Hockey, however, focused on the complaints against the coaches. The organization’s discipline committee found that Laing created “an atmosphere surrounding his team of fear, negativity, self-doubt and worthlessness, feelings of being defenseless, demoralized, discouraged, and demeaned, and it deteriorated over time.”

Laing and his assistants “spoke to 15- and 16-year-olds using language that would be offensive to most adults,” the panel concluded.

The suspensions have cast a shadow over the Assabet program, which has long been seen as a model for grassroots developmental programs for girls of high athletic promise across the country. Assabet graduates, including US Hockey Hall of Famer Cammi Granato, have won medals in every Olympic Games since women’s ice hockey became an official event in 1998.

Yet for all the program’s achievements, “no amount of glory in the hockey world will do justice for the way that [Laing] and other members of the coaching staff have treated us,” one of the seven girls who filed complaints wrote to Mass Hockey.

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Another wrote that Laing “criticized, demoralized, and belittled my teammates so much that I had lost my love for the game.”

Twelve girls who remain on the team submitted a statement to Mass Hockey, praising Laing as a gifted coach, mentor, and advocate. They said they never felt mistreated by the coaches.

“We feel their punishment is unfair and has hurt Coach Laing, his family, and us more than any of you understand,” they stated. “You have taken a very good man, a very good coach, and someone that cared so much about us from us for the remainder of our youth hockey lives.”

Laing, who is barred from all Mass Hockey activities, was not on the bench when the depleted team — ranked second in the country and guided by his replacement, Salem State University coach Malcolm Spurling — won the state championship in December to advance to the national tournament in April. After the game, the remaining Assabet girls unfurled a banner on the ice inscribed with Laing’s name over the image of a heart.

The parents of five of the remaining players wrote to Mass Hockey that the complaints against Laing and the Horans were inspired by “disgruntled” parents.

“Dennis is very demanding, but our daughters, and we as parents, knew this to be the case,” they stated. “None of this should be a surprise.”

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The 20 girls who started the season on the Assabet team also play prep school hockey as ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-graders. They all are college hockey prospects, and nine already have verbally committed to play for Division 1 programs, including three of the seven who filed complaints.

Parents on both sides of the dispute provided the Globe with documents submitted to Mass Hockey for the coaches’ hearings, which were held from last September to November. The only parent who spoke publicly to the Globe was Todd Allard, a Dracut police officer, who said he would not have allowed his daughter, Kristina, to play for Laing had he not observed him in action.

“He loves these kids,” Allard said. “Yes, he’s hard on them, but he makes it clear that he’s not there to make friends. He’s there to make Division 1 college hockey players.”

Kristina Allard, who is 16, has played for Laing since she was 9. Her father said Laing helped Kristina receive a full scholarship at the prestigious St. Paul’s School as well as gain a verbal commitment for a full, five-year athletic scholarship at Northeastern University.

“My wife is a bus driver; we’re not rich,” Allard said. “Kristina has received about $650,000 worth of scholarships. I owe that to Dennis Laing.”

Mass Hockey said it recognized “the great support and sympathy” Laing maintains. But the discipline committee sharply criticized his leadership.

“The tone is set from the top,” the panel, composed of four representatives of Mass Hockey, stated. “Not only did [Laing] act inappropriately, he failed to take action to correct the situation.”

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Bill Horan’s language was deemed “ridiculing, taunting, name calling, intimidating, and threatening.” He did not attend his disciplinary hearing, instead e-mailing a statement that included an apology “for my part in this whole situation.”

Laing, left, and Horan on the bench during an Assabet Valley game.
Laing, left, and Horan on the bench during an Assabet Valley game.

Horan wrote that he never meant to hurt the girls and that he made some comments in jest, though “that doesn’t justify them being said at all.”

Horan expressed regret that he hadn’t updated his coaching methods.

“Dennis and I should have softened our tone and changed our style over the years,” Horan wrote. “Our way of coaching is no longer acceptable in today’s game.”

Meanwhile, the parents of several girls who filed complaints blamed the Assabet Valley program’s founder and director, Carlton Gray, for fostering a culture that enabled harsh and hurtful behavior by coaches. They said Gray responded defiantly or not at all to their complaints, while other parents said they were satisfied with Gray.

Gray, who founded the trailblazing girls’ hockey program in 1971, declined to comment for this story, other than to state that nearly 10,000 girls have played for about 300 coaches on Assabet teams and none had previously filed a complaint with Mass Hockey’s SafeSport program.

The Assabet program sustains itself through player fees, which range from $1,600 a season for girls 8 and under to $2,700 for members of the under 14, 16, and 19 teams. The coaches generally volunteer, but Laing and others have charged girls to attend skills clinics at the rink. Gray’s company, Valley Sports, owns the arena and also charges other programs and the public to skate there.

Last year, Gray received a written complaint from the Anti-Defamation League of New England about Laing’s alleged use of a Nazi salute at the rink, according to correspondence obtained by the Globe.

Gray retained a law firm to investigate, and his lawyer informed the ADL that Gray and Valley Sports were not responsible for Laing’s actions because he had rented the ice for a clinic he was operating independently.

The alleged Nazi gesture is “extremely concerning,” a letter from Gray’s legal team to the ADL stated. But “it appears that those allegations should be directed at Mr. Laing, individually.”

Mass Hockey, after a disciplinary hearing in September, found credible the complaint that Laing imitated a Nazi salute and said, “Heil,” in front of his players.

“The comment ‘heil,’ as expressed by Coach Dennis Laing, was insensitive and clearly meant to be offensive,” the panel reported.

Laing stated in a letter to Mass Hockey that he was holding his hockey stick in his left hand, his left arm bent at the elbow, when he flicked his left wrist to a fellow coach and said, “Heil.”

The Jewish player, in her written statement to Mass Hockey, said Laing initially was dismissive about the episode, even when he learned of her religious faith.

“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘I don’t care,’ ” she stated.

“After the Nazi salute,” she wrote, “I reached the tipping point with his treatment of me as a player.”

Laing said in his initial written statement to Mass Hockey, “In my opinion, I haven’t done anything other than have a small lapse in judgment.”

He also expressed dismay about how the gesture was perceived.

“It sickens me that anyone who has spent time on the ice working with me as a coach could possibly accuse me of such a thing,” he wrote.

Ronald Ham, a coach who was standing on the ice with Laing at the time, wrote to Mass Hockey that they were watching another coach “animatedly correcting a player who was continually underperforming” when Laing “quickly motioned with a closed fist, gloved hand, and said, “Heil.’ ”

Ham asserted that Laing’s gesture was not meant to disparage anyone.

“I have known Dennis Laing for many years,” Ham wrote. “To try to associate his beliefs to the most despicable groups in the world (past & present) is a GROSS MISUNDERSTANDING of Dennis Laing and his Family.”

Mass Hockey, after the initial hearing, found that “Laing did not apologize either at the time of or immediately following” the alleged Nazi salute.

“It wasn’t until receiving an e-mail from a parent” four days later that Laing told the girls he “was sorry if you think it was offensive,” Mass Hockey stated.

In November, Laing was granted a second hearing after he asserted he had not been properly notified before the first hearing. After the second hearing, Mass Hockey did not address the alleged Nazi salute in its final fact-finding report due in part to questions about whether the organization could claim jurisdiction because the incident occurred at an independent clinic, according to a source familiar with the review.

Robert Trestan, the ADL’s regional director, called the explanation “very puzzling.”

“It’s incumbent upon Mass Hockey to hold [Laing] accountable for everything he did,” Trestan said. “These girls had the courage to speak up. We send the wrong message if we don’t hold coaches to the highest standards.”

Mass Hockey declined to comment, citing Laing’s appeal to USA Hockey.

Laing, 57, played hockey at Marblehead High School and Salem State University before a brief professional minor league career. He later coached his three daughters — Denna, Brianna, and Lexie — at Assabet before they played in the Ivy League (Denna at Princeton, Brianna and Lexie at Harvard) and skated professionally with the Boston Pride.

Denna was playing for the Pride in the 2016 Outdoor Women’s Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium when she suffered a spinal cord injury that left her a quadriplegic. Her spirited approach to recovery, rehabilitation, and renewal has since made her an inspiration to many young players.

Denna wrote to the discipline committee, “My dad is a tough coach, but his firmness is always given with the intention of betterment or motivation.”

Dozens of other former players have stood by Laing, and numerous college coaches have written Mass Hockey to endorse him, including those at Northeastern, Penn State, Princeton, and Syracuse.

The discipline committee found that Laing failed to control the Horans, especially Bill, who allegedly made many offensive remarks. The panel quoted Bill Horan as repeatedly disparaging the young skaters, partly by referring to them as SPED, or special education, players and their private schools as “SPED schools.”

Horan’s comments especially hurt players whose siblings cope with learning challenges, Mass Hockey stated. One girl wrote, “I am not putting up with these abusive coaches anymore, for myself and for my teammates, who have also repeatedly been personally attacked for their intelligence, including being called ‘retards’ many times.”

Mass Hockey found that Kelly Horan, who played hockey at Lawrence Academy before UConn, played a lesser but nevertheless unacceptable role.

“The girls felt belittled and threatened at all the games and practices in which Kelly participated,” Mass Hockey stated.

The panel, however, said it was “very encouraged that Kelly Horan has taken proactive measures to improve herself and her coaching methods.” The committee said she completed a course presented by the Positive Coaching Alliance — a course her father and Laing must complete if they wish to return to coaching.

Kelly Horan also must serve a year of probation after her suspension. Laing and Bill Horan were ordered to serve two years of probation.

The ordeal has damaged many relationships, including those of girls on both sides of the dispute who attend the same schools. There appears to be little room for reconciliation. The players who remain on the team want their coaches back, while those who filed complaints want conditions at Assabet Valley to improve.

One girl who filed a complaint wrote, “It breaks my heart to think that other girls may walk into this situation with these coaches if nothing changes.”


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