Former Red Wings defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner Aaron Ward revealed Thursday that he was among Dr. Robert Anderson's victims of sexual abuse as a 17- and 18-year-old student-athlete at the University of Michigan.
Ward shared his experience in an interview with TSN 690 in Montreal in recognition of Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada, a campaign aimed at fighting the stigmas surrounding mental illness.
Ward, who played hockey at Michigan from 1990-93 and later spent seven seasons with the Red Wings as part of a 15-year NHL career, said the abuse he suffered from Dr. Anderson contributed to a gambling addiction that plagued him for years.
"When I was in college and I was 17 and 18, I was sexually abused by a doctor who was at the University of Michigan who’s currently publicly under investigation," said Ward, later confirming Dr. Anderson's identity. "Listen, I was married 20 years and my ex-wife did not know that, not an ounce of that. But you come to a place of realizing that when you finally let go of these things and when you share with people, whether you deem them embarrassing, whether you can’t come to grips with the reality, if you take the chance and you verbalize it, you can quickly find out that people can either kind of relate to what you’re going through or they can just be there (for you).
"So as I admit that on radio, that I was sexually abused by a doctor in a professional environment at the University of Michigan and suppressed it forever, it is liberating as you drop these things from your conscience. I spent, since I was 17 years old when that happened, trying to figure out why I gambled since I was 17. That’s not the only reason, but it’s a contributing factor."
When the investigation into Dr. Anderson was launched last year, Ward said he took it upon himself to reveal his story. Anderson, who died in 2008, was dismissed from his position as Michigan's director of health services in 1979 due to reports of sexual abuse, but remained the top physician in the athletic department until 2003.
"I called the University of Michigan and said, ‘Hey, listen, I want to talk to somebody. I have an experience to share,'" said Ward. "And it was a unique experience to sit with lawyers who thought I was somehow ashamed or not willing to share it. I’m like, ‘Listen, do you want me to testify in court? I will. I don’t care, use my name. I didn’t do it to myself. And I will tell you, there’s a laundry list of things that may be correlated with this that shaped my life. I’m ready to let it all go.'"
Ward said he explained to them "the fact that that my post-17-year-old self, I spent a lifetime trying to regain control. And the control for me was honestly living a lifestyle of risky behavior, on the edge, putting money on the line that I really didn’t honestly have. ... The amount of money I was wagering on the weekends was stupid, unfathomably stupid."
Ward said he 'just recovered' from his addiction, in part because he finally confronted what happened to him at Michigan. He said he kept it bottled up inside him for so long that when the Larry Nassar scandal was unfolding at Michigan State, "I never even once thought about, ‘That’s happened to me.’ I literally was like, ‘Oh my god, I couldn’t even imagine how bad that is.’ Well guess what? I could imagine. But I was unwilling to even think about it."
By sharing his experience now, Ward hopes that people fighting similar demons might find the strength to open up. Or at least find comfort in knowing they're not alone. He said the first person he told was his girlfriend, now his soon-to-be wife, which "made it easier" for him to tell his mother and sparked meaningful conversations with his daughters.
"I was trying to give them an example: 'If you need to show or find trust in someone, I’m trusting you and I’m giving you this information. You can trust me, that whatever goes on in life, as long as I’m around and my feet are firmly planted on this earth, I'll be here, too. And there’s no shame in admitting to you're going through some struggles,'" Ward said.
Ward, now 48, said he's "happy with where I'm at in life. And it's because of the fact that the steps were taken by others to help me and I showed a willingness to invest in myself."