Former Assabet hockey player recounts alleged sexual relationship with coach Carl Gray
Gray, now 82, declined to comment on Ticknor’s allegations, other than to say in an interview at his house, “We were best of friends. I respected who she was.”
He has previously denied acting inappropriately with any girl he has coached.
Ticknor said she came forward after reading Globe stories about allegations that Gray for decades has emotionally harmed girls as young as 8 with profane verbal abuse, unwanted physical contact, and unannounced intrusions into locker rooms, among other complaints. She said she is speaking out also because Gray has not publicly taken responsibility for the damage his purported conduct has caused.
“Enough is enough,” Ticknor said. “Carl has provided all kinds of opportunities for girls that many of them would not have had otherwise. I respect that, but that doesn’t give him license to treat people in abusive ways.”
The US Center for SafeSport, acting on a statement from Ticknor, informed her June 1 that it has opened an investigation into the allegation that Gray engaged in sexual activity with her while he was coaching her in a program affiliated with USA Hockey. The center was authorized by Congress in 2017 to investigate sexual misconduct in Olympic sports.
Gray is renowned in US women’s hockey, having led a movement to make the sport accessible to girls when he founded the Assabet program in 1972. His program has won 52 national titles and helped more than 300 girls secure college scholarships, including dozens who have been selected to play for US national teams. Some have captured Olympic gold.
Gray is a member of the Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame. Many former players have credited his demanding coaching style with helping them reach their potential, and parents of other former players have praised his commitment to building the sport internationally, most recently by making a large investment in 2018 to take more than 30 children and parents to a tournament in Beijing.
But some of Gray’s abrasive methods have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. The Globe reported in February that Mass Hockey, USA Hockey’s state affiliate, suspended three coaches of Gray’s nationally ranked Under 16 team for “prolonged and sustained verbal abuse [that] caused emotional distress” to seven players. Some of their parents and others blamed Gray for creating and fostering the allegedly abusive culture.
In April, the Globe reported that more than two dozen women who played for Assabet over the last 15 years had come forward and alleged that Gray bullied or belittled them. Some said Gray, without their permission, squeezed their biceps, while mentioning their breast size and referring to Chesty Morgan, an exotic dancer and adult entertainment star in the 1970s and ’80s who had a 73-inch bust. Other former players said Gray boasted of being “a sex beast” when he was younger.
Parents felt helpless
Gray said in an interview in April that his coaching methods were designed to induce greatness in young players, not to harm them.
“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.”
The Assabet program announced April 10, less than a week after the story about Gray was published, that he had resigned from the organization. He also resigned from the New England Girls Hockey League, which he created. Gray continues to own Valley Sports, the Concord ice arena where the Assabet program is based.
Now, he faces Ticknor’s allegations. Earlier this month, a Concord police detective, alerted by SafeSport, contacted Ticknor, who said she has no interest in pursuing criminal or civil charges against Gray. She told the detective about her experience, including details about the police encounter at the park.
When Ticknor and Gray rose that night from the grass, she said, they saw a Concord police cruiser idling behind Gray’s sedan. She said they often visited the park after hours. She recalled watching Gray speak to the officer and being surprised that the patrolman sent them on their way without speaking to her.
When the Globe asked Concord police in February to produce any public records they had on Gray, those documents included no reference to the 1981 incident. Ticknor awaits a response to her own request for information on the incident.
“It would be interesting to see if there is evidence of an adult seeing something that clearly was not right,” she said.
Ticknor said Gray was sexually involved with her from around February to April of 1981, when she tried to end the relationship and confided about it to her mother. She said Gray tearfully resisted and reacted in part by appealing to her parents.
Gray was married then, as he is now. Ticknor’s mother, Matilda, said in an interview that she recalled phoning Gray about his alleged relationship with Estey. She said he showed up at her house, sat at her kitchen table, declared his love for her daughter, and described how he envisioned his future with her.
“He started drawing circles on paper about how he saw things going, with his wife as one circle and Estey as another circle,” Matilda said. “He wanted Estey as his mistress. I said, ‘What are you talking about? This is impossible.‘ ”
The Ticknors were having marital problems at the time, which they said may have made Estey vulnerable to an inappropriate relationship. Ticknor’s father, Malcolm Ticknor, said he remembered Gray saying at the kitchen table that he would divorce his wife and marry Estey.
“It was crazy, bizarre,” Malcolm said. “It was very stressful for Estey.”
The Ticknors said they sent Gray away and received Estey’s assurance that the relationship was over. But they otherwise felt helpless, as if reporting the activity were not an option.
“That didn’t happen back then,” Matilda said. “Who do you go to? The police? Nowadays it’s an obvious answer. It wasn’t then.”
‘Very confusing’ feelings
Estey Ticknor, too, said she felt overwhelmed. She first met Gray when he invited her to join the Assabet program during her junior year on the Concord Academy team, which practiced and played home games at Valley Sports. In her senior year, Gray assigned her to Assabet’s top team, whose roster included future Olympian Cindy Curley.
“I had never played at that level and wasn’t as good as the other players,” Ticknor said. “Carl screamed and yelled and berated me all the time. I was very scared of him.”
But, she said, “He made me desperate for his approval.”
Ted Sherman, Ticknor’s Concord Academy coach, said in an interview that she privately complained to him at the time about Gray’s alleged verbal abuse, sexual innuendos, and unannounced entries into locker rooms.
Sherman said he volunteered to speak to Ticknor’s parents about it, but she objected, fearing she would lose her place on the team and a chance to play collegiately. Ticknor said she told Sherman years later about Gray’s alleged sexual involvement with her.
Sherman expressed regret in the interview that he had not reacted more forcefully to address Ticknor’s concerns.
“I’m not particularly proud of that,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot more in this decade about how to put an end to that stuff.”
During Ticknor’s senior year, she rapidly improved at Assabet, and as college recruiters took notice, she said, Gray went from tormenting her to raving about her. He was tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, an electrical engineer at the Charles Stark Draper Lab.
“He could turn on the charm,” Ticknor said. “He was very charismatic, funny, smart. I definitely looked up to and admired him. Those feelings were very confusing.”
The Assabet team practiced Friday nights and played games on Sundays. They often gathered afterward in the back of the rink, Ticknor said, drinking beer purchased by older teammates. Gray typically joined them, and that winter he began driving Ticknor home because they both lived in Concord.
“He seemed flirtatious at first, but I thought I was imagining it,” she said. “Then one night he caressed my ear. It blew my mind. I had never had a boyfriend. I had no sexual experience at all, except for kissing a couple of boys.”
He began spending more time with her.
“I felt this intense exhilaration and excitement, even though I was kind of terrified. It was like a rushing train I couldn’t get off,” she said.
She recalled them connecting clandestinely, with Ticknor ducking into Gray’s car at the main gate of Concord Academy after school or hiking from her home on Annursnac Hill Road to a nearby elementary school after hours to meet him.
Ticknor’s lifelong friend, Lyza Morss, said in an interview that she was stunned one night when she walked with Ticknor from her home to Concord’s South Bridge Boat House to find Gray waiting for her. Morss was stunned, too, to see Ticknor climb into Gray’s car.
“I wish I had paid more attention at the time,” Morss said.
Ticknor remembers teammates teasing her about the attention Gray paid her and the praise he showered on her. During that period, she said, he nominated her for Assabet’s sportsmanship award, which was presented to her by Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr.
Breaking it off
The winter of 1981 was special for the Assabet girls. They became a national power, criss-crossing the northeast US and Canada, often by bus, with Gray summoning Ticknor to sit in front next to him.
In early April, they arrived in Lake Placid, N.Y., to compete for the US Girls Amateur Hockey Association’s national title. Ticknor’s mother said she was surprised to see Gray sitting in a hotel hot tub with his players, with his arm apparently around Estey.
“It was weird,” she said. “But I never imagined Estey would have any interest in him.”
Others were suspicious, but Ticknor pushed back.
“I had all this terror and shame,” she said. “My friendship with my teammates meant so much to me, and I didn’t want to lose it. So I lied whenever anybody said anything about it.”
The Assabet girls won the national championship, at the same Lake Placid arena where the US men’s hockey team had stunned the world the year before by winning Olympic gold.
“I had never experienced that kind of excitement before,” Ticknor said. “It was huge that we won, and by then I had started to fit in socially with the team, which was a really a big deal for me.”
Her relationship with Gray, meanwhile, was intensifying, she said. Home from Lake Placid, he drove her one day to the Battleship Cove Maritime Museum in Fall River and took her to dinner at the Cove Restaurant there.
She had resisted his attempts to have sexual intercourse, she said, until they returned that night to an upper office at his arena. She described the encounter as effectively ending their relationship.
“After that, I was totally freaked out,” she said. “I remember in the next couple of days saying to him, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ He said he loved me. I said, ‘You shouldn’t be in love with me. You’re 43, I’m 17, and you’re married. This isn’t right.‘ ”
Once the season ended, she distanced herself from Gray. She had been recruited by several colleges, and she chose Dartmouth over Brown, she said, because she would be farther away from Gray.
‘He said he loved me. I said, ‘You shouldn’t be in love with me. You’re 43, I’m 17, and you’re married. This isn’t right.’’
Estey Ticknor on her interactions with Carl Gray
Ticknor became a two-sport star at Dartmouth, becoming the first women’s hockey player to score 100 points in a season and setting records for saves by a soccer goalie that still stand.
But she remained troubled by Gray. After college, she shared her secret with Morss, who also played in the Assabet program and recalled enduring alleged verbal and emotional abuse from Gray. Morss said Ticknor tearfully recounted her experience with Gray.
“She was so ashamed and so embarrassed,” Morss said.
Ticknor returned to Concord after college and wanted to continue to play competitive women’s hockey. Assabet remained the best program, and she decided to play there after making clear to Gray that their relationship was over.
“He started referring to ‘our thing,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘No, it’s not our thing. You were wrong. I was a child. You were an adult. It shouldn’t have happened.’ We went forward from there.”
A call for vigilance
In 1987, Ticknor was selected to play on a US national team, coached in part by Gray, that competed in Toronto for the first women’s world championship. The US team won bronze, but their participation helped lead to women’s hockey being accepted as an Olympic sport in 1992.
While some of her teammates went on to pursue their Olympic dreams, Ticknor began coaching girls’ hockey and teaching at Williston Northampton School, where she met and married a fellow teacher, Glenn Swanson. They had two children before they divorced in 2005, as she was going through the process of coming out as gay.
Ticknor now lives in Easthampton with her spouse, Dr. Tara Lagu, and their 3-year-old daughter. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker, with a private therapy practice in Northampton.
From personal experience, Ticknor said she understands the emotional toll an allegedly abusive coach can exact, especially on youths.
She cited Gray’s long history at Assabet and called on governing bodies such as USA Hockey and Mass Hockey to practice more effective oversight and enforcement.
“I would like him to take some kind of responsibility or the governing bodies to sanction him in a way to make it clear that his repeated bad behavior is not acceptable,” Ticknor said.
She called on parents, too, to be more vigilant. She said children should be able to pursue their athletic dreams without suffering verbal and emotional abuse. The damage, in some cases at Assabet, has long endured, according to Ticknor and other former players.
When Ticknor’s friends have asked why she has chosen to speak out now, she said, she has told them, “I have been part of a culture of fear and silence. The Assabet program reinforced the idea of ‘don’t say anything, be silent.’ When I saw the kind of egregious behavior that has been going on there for all these years, I decided it was time to tell my story, as old as it is.”
She praised the seven Assabet players who stood up last year and filed complaints about the allegedly abusive coaching in Gray’s program. Ticknor said she stands with them.
Bob Hohler can be reached at [email protected]