Disgraced former hockey coach Graham James offered an apology to the victims of his sexual assaults as new revelations surfaced about the extent of his attacks on two former teenaged players.
“I am deeply sorry. I was wrong,” Mr. James told a Winnipeg courtroom on Wednesday. “Parents expected their sons to be safe. Not all were.”
Mr. James, 59, made the comments during a day-long sentencing hearing. He has pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt – the two, it turns out, are cousins – who played for teams Mr. James coached in the 1980s and 1990s.
This is the second time Mr. James has faced sexual assault charges. He was convicted of assaulting two other players, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, in 1997 and received a 3½-year sentence. Mr. Fleury, who also played in the NHL, and Mr. Holt came forward with their allegations a few years ago, and Mr. James pleaded guilty last December.
While Mr. Fleury has spoken publicly about his years of abuse at the hands of Mr. James, Mr. Holt’s story had never been told before. His name and the details of his case had been sealed by a publication ban. Mr. Holt said he only decided to go public on Tuesday, convinced it was finally time to take a stand.
“I’m not a victim anymore, I’m a survivor,” he said after the hearing in explaining his decision.
The court heard gruesome details about how Mr. Holt, who dreamed of following his cousin to the NHL, became the target of repeated attacks by Mr. James.
Mr. Holt grew up in Alameda, Sask., and worked his way up the hockey ranks. He thought he had finally got his big break in 1989, when he made the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League. The Broncos had just won the Memorial Cup and the team was coached by Mr. James, considered a hockey master at the time, and also Mr. Fleury’s former coach. Mr. Holt, just 15 years old at the time, felt certain his dream would come true.
But instead of being honed for hockey greatness, Mr. Holt quickly found himself the subject of Mr. Graham’s sexual advances. First it was strange approaches and fondling, then invitations to stay at Mr. James’s house overnight for “tutoring sessions,” and then much worse. Over the course of the next five years, Mr. Holt was assaulted 400 times by Mr. James, who often told the young player that, if he didn’t comply, his hockey future would be over. Once, after receiving $60 from Mr. James for a sex act, Mr. Holt sat in his car and cried.
It all happened just as it had to Mr. Fleury years earlier. Mr. James coached Mr. Fleury in Winnipeg and Moose Jaw and assaulted him an estimated 150 times over three years. And there were others, including one player dating back to 1971. Mr. James even made trades based on players’ looks.
The court heard that several players knew about the abuse, but were too scared to tell anyone because Mr. James controlled their lives and their hockey futures. Mr. James also showered players with gifts, including trips to Major League baseball games and Disneyland. He gave them money and promised to help get them to the NHL if they complied. If they didn’t, he threatened and belittled them. When Mr. Holt asked to be traded, Mr. James blocked the move, saying he controlled Mr. Holt’s future.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Mr. Holt read a victim impact statement, stopping frequently to hold back tears. He told the court how his life fell apart after years of abuse at the hands of Mr. James. He became an alcoholic, his marriage suffered and he couldn’t trust anyone. He talked about losing his innocence, his motivation and his soul. “There are no words to describe the depths of suffering I have endured,” he told Provincial Court Judge Catherine Carlson. “What that man did to me and many others is the cruellest form of abuse.”
After he finished, he walked away, not looking at Mr. James, who sat just a few metres away. He took a seat next to Mr. Kennedy.
The court also heard a statement from Mr. Fleury, who talked about being overwhelmed and exhausted as Mr. James repeatedly assaulted him over three years. Like Mr. Todd, Mr. Fleury had no one to turn to and feared his hockey career would be ruined if he told anyone what was going on. He lost the energy and the will to resist, he said, and convinced himself that giving in to Mr. James was better than constantly fighting him off. The attacks only ended when Mr. James was dismissed from the team in a dispute with the general manager.
“I remember being horrified, extremely scared and confused,” Mr. Fleury said in his statement.
But the court also heard that the relationships were complex. Evan Roitenberg, Mr. James’s lawyer, noted that Mr. James and Mr. Fleury remained close friends for 10 years after the assaults ended and even went into business together. Mr. Holt also asked Mr. James for help getting a tryout for a national team in 1995, he added. And he said Mr. Holt had written a letter in support of Mr. James at his sentencing hearing in 1997.
“There is a lot more to Mr. James than what you have heard today,” Mr. Roitenberg told the court, adding that Mr. James has been rehabilitated. He urged the judge not to send Mr. James back to prison, arguing that would serve no purpose and that Mr. James had become “the boogie man” in the eyes of many Canadians.
After the hearing, Mr. Holt denied writing any letter in support of Mr. James and said he was surprised at the suggestion. The court heard that he refused to write a letter when Mr. James called him at the time.
Crown counsel Colleen McDuff is seeking a six-year jail sentence, while Mr. James's lawyer is asking for a conditional sentence of up to 18 months. Judge Carlson will hand down her sentence on March 20.
As he left the courtroom, Mr. Holt said his life has turned around. He has a loving family, a new job and has been sober for years. “I can look at [Mr. James]today like I have my own life now,” he said. “I got that power back. He doesn’t have that control that he had any more.”
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton