Disgraced junior hockey coach Graham James, among the most reviled figures in Canadian hockey, admitted Wednesday that he repeatedly sexually assaulted two of the young players he once mentored – including retired NHL superstar Theoren Fleury.
Mr. James, his heft diminished and his grey hair cropped close, appeared via video link in a Winnipeg courtroom looking nothing like the rotund, animated man who once stalked the bench behind the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.
Though he had been facing nine charges of sexual assault involving three players dating back to between 1979 and 1994, Mr. James only pleaded guilty to charges involving Mr. Fleury and another victim, whose name remains under a court-ordered publication ban.
Mr. James pleaded guilty in 1997 to 350 counts of sexual abuse against two other players, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, whose decision to go public helped to lay bare the scandal. Mr. James was sentenced to 3½ -years in prison.
Crown attorney Colleen McDuff asked that two charges related to a third complainant, Greg Gilhooly, be stayed.
She said no plea deal was struck with Mr. James and the Crown will be asking for penitentiary time when he is sentenced. The decision to stay the charges came after consultation with Mr. Gilhooly and “having regard to the pleas that Mr. James was prepared to enter and avoid a protracted number of trials,” she said.
Mr. James’s lawyer, Evan Roitenberg, who participated by video from Montreal alongside his client, told the court Mr. James did not make a deal. “No one has promised him anything or threatened him to get him to enter these pleas,” he said.
Mr. James, 59, has been out on bail for almost a year and is living in Montreal. He will remain free until his sentencing in Winnipeg on Feb. 22, for which he must appear.
A statement of facts read out in the Winnipeg courtroom went uncontested. It said his abuse of Mr. Fleury started in September 1983 and lasted until August 1985.
“They commenced with Mr. James fondling the buttocks and genital area of the victim while he slept,” Ms. McDuff read from the statement. “As time passed, those incidents accelerated to groping and fondling about the body.”
Eventually, she said, Mr. James would masturbate in front of Mr. Fleury before performing oral sex.
Mr. James’s pattern was almost identical with the second victim, she said. Those attacks took place between 1989 and 1994.
“There is quite a bit of additional information related to that which will be referred to and argued at the sentencing hearing,” Ms. McDuff said.
Mr. Fleury detailed the abuse he suffered in his 2009 autobiography, prompting the police investigation that led to the most recent charges against Canada’s most reviled coach.
In the book Playing With Fire the former Calgary Flame told of how Mr. James recruited him at 13 to play in Winnipeg and then in Moose Jaw. He said Mr. James would visit and abuse him on the road – fondling him or performing oral sex. Mr. James obtained his silence by threatening the youngster’s dream of one day playing in the NHL.
Mr. Fleury detailed how Mr. James took him and Mr. Kennedy to Disneyland where he said Mr. James would take turns molesting them in motel rooms. Mr. James pleaded guilty to the charges involving Mr. Kennedy in 1997, but Mr. Fleury stayed silent until 2009.
Mr. Gilhooly called Wednesday’s ruling “a fantastic deal” from a legal perspective” – even though the charges involving him were stayed.
“The Crown gets a guilty plea,” said Mr. Gilhooly, now a corporate lawyer in Ontario. “The Crown gets agreement to the statement of fact without opposition. And the Crown didn’t have to cut a deal on sentence. Everybody gets what they want but me.”
But at a news conference in Calgary, Mr. Fleury criticized the justice system for how it handled the James case.
“Graham James pled guilty years ago, and then he was granted a pardon, after he was found in Mexico and brought back to Canada on these charges,” he said. “He was given bail … this is what the mighty Canadian justice system allowed a previously convicted child rapist to do.”
Mr. Fleury said a convicted pedophile like Mr. James doesn’t change. The former player suggested Mr. James shouldn’t still be out on bail and should serve a lengthy sentence.
“I believe what people show me – he showed me he was and is a rapist. There is no changing a monster like that,” he said.
“It took me 27 years to get comfortable in my own skin. To me, that’s a pretty decent sentence.”
Mr. Fleury doesn't plan to be there when Mr. James learns his fate. “I would rather be in a room full of survivors and victims.”
He was planning to travel to High Prairie, Alta., after speaking with reporters to meet with a victims services group.
Mr. Kennedy does want to see James get sentenced.
“I think I need to be there absolutely, because I think I’m at a point where Graham does not have any power over me today,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I need to be able to look him right in the eyes and he’ll be hanging his head. I guarantee it.”
Mr. Kennedy is to appear before a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday on the investigation and prevention of child abuse.
“I’m really going to carry the message of what we’re doing in Canada to help empower the bystander. Instead of trying to catch the bad guy, what we’ve learned is we need to empower the bystander, with empowering education.”
Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Fleury spiralled downward as adults despite their professional success on the ice. They were both divorced, and both abused drugs and alcohol. Mr. Fleury said the sexual abuse in his teen years transformed him from a confused young man into an angry, self-loathing boozer who blew millions on cards, drugs and lap dancers.
Mr. Kennedy said he was suicidal and couldn’t sleep for fear he would be taken advantage of again. Both have become outspoken advocates for abuse victims.
But Mr. Fleury said he’s moved past the trauma. “Even before I went to Winnipeg to file a complaint with the Winnipeg Police Service, I was already at the point of victor in my life, so I never put any stock or end point to what was going to happen through the legal system.
“What the legal system has shown me is that it’s flawed, very, very seriously, and that we have to change.”
Mr. James was quietly pardoned for his crimes in 2007 – something that didn’t come to light until it was reported by The Canadian Press last year. The pardon, which was called “deeply troubling and gravely disturbing” by the Prime Minister’s Office, sparked widespread anger among Mr. James’s victims and the public.
The pardon didn’t erase his criminal record but meant the information was kept in a separate file and doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, the key law-enforcement database used by the RCMP and other police forces.
The Conservative government has since overhauled the pardon system, increased fees and banned pardons for those convicted of sexual offences against a minor.
Mr. James’s pardon was rescinded as soon as new charges against him were filed. Even so, Mr. Fleury said, the damage he has done remains untallied.
“There’s six of us who came forward, but there’s probably 140 guys out there, who, I can pretty much write their stories from start to finish, and where they are today and what has happened in their life.”