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Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy’s work in battling child abuse is also resonating with people setting up programs in the small Saskatchewan city. (Chris Bolin For the globe and mail)
Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy’s work in battling child abuse is also resonating with people setting up programs in the small Saskatchewan city. (Chris Bolin For the globe and mail)

After decades of silence, Swift Current and hockey community face invisible damage of child abuse Add to ...

You don’t expect towns to make resolutions at this time of year. But Swift Current, Sask., is well used to the unexpected.

This coming Friday, the little prairie community of 16,000 on the edge of the Trans-Canada Highway will finally live up to the motto on its welcoming sign: “Where life makes sense.”

For 30 years, it often has not, in this picturesque town that lies between Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat. For Swift Current bore the weight of a dark episode that those who knew of it (and who did not?) could not deal with – as if, somehow, it was by some bizarre twist of logic their fault.

On Friday night locals will welcome back Sheldon Kennedy, once the toast of the town, the teenaged hockey star who helped bring a Memorial Cup championship to their town in 1989, yet a name that for years people avoided even mentioning.

They will honour Mr. Kennedy, now 46, over a weekend that will salute the 50th anniversary of the Western Hockey League and which will include a Rogers Hometown Hockey broadcast Sunday evening.

There will also be a special screening of a powerful, deeply disturbing documentary simply entitled Swift Current. Not so many years back, the town would have shunned such a film. But so very much has changed.

“When I knew Sheldon Kennedy the hockey player, he was known around town as ‘the party animal,’” says Swift Current mayor Jerrod Schafer, who grew up idolizing Mr. Kennedy and dreaming of one day playing for the Broncos junior team. “Now he comes back and he’s Sheldon Kennedy, Order of Canada.”

The 1986-87 Swift Current Broncos team.

The mayor is offering an apology to Mr. Kennedy and to those others who fell victim to a predatory coach named Graham James – another name that for years would not be spoken in Swift Current, though it was James who brought the town that treasured Memorial Cup.

Today, Graham James is in a Quebec prison, serving the second of two convictions for sexual assault on young players under his control. It was Sheldon Kennedy who first went public with his story in 1996, leading to Mr. James’s first conviction. It was his courage that led other victims – among them former NHL star Theo Fleury and Toronto lawyer Greg Gilhooly – to step forward with their own stories of traumatic abuse while at the mercy of a coach who seemed to them, and to their families, to be the ticket to a professional career.

Mr. Kennedy’s story made him far more famous than he ever was in the eight years in which he played for Detroit Red Wings, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. He was as well known for bad behaviour as for good play, his off-ice life a spiral of alcohol and drug addiction.

“I lived fast and dangerous,” he says in the documentary. “I was portrayed as this out-of-control, drunk kid. There was something wrong with me – and there was.

“I had to protect a secret.”

The “secret” began in Winnipeg, where the 14-year-old budding star first fell under the spell of Mr. James. Over the next five years, Mr. Kennedy estimates he was sexually abused by Mr. James 350 times.

Two years after he went public with his story, Mr. Kennedy rollerbladed across Canada to raise awareness. His story was told in a book and dramatized on television. He is today director of Calgary’s Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre for victim of child abuse.

The new documentary, directed by Joshua Rofé, shows that there are far more victims than the violated. The ripple effect spreads to the family, to friends – even to an entire community such as Swift Current.

“It’s about the invisible damage,” says Mr. Kennedy.

In one emotional interview, Shirley Kennedy, the player’s mother, talks for the first time of her pain, though she could still not look at either the interviewer or the camera. Haunted by one time the Kennedys had put their son’s coach up for the night in little Fleming, Sask., she recalls, “I served him breakfast. I found out later he’d actually molested Sheldon in our basement, in our house, and then came upstairs, sat down, had breakfast as if nothing had ever happened.”

Ryan Kennedy, the player’s teenage daughter, talks about her father’s volatility, his anger and shame: “I could never rely on him. I was the kid who had to stay after school because it was my dad’s day to pick me up and he didn’t show up.”

Team ownership and management, even those who had billeted violated players, blamed themselves for not noticing.

And then there was the bus crash.

Four players from the Swift Current Broncos died when their bus crashed on the Trans-Canada Highway in 1986. (The Canadian Press)

On Dec. 30, 1986, the Swift Current Broncos headed out in bad weather for a game in Regina. Mr. Kennedy was sitting beside the team’s other promising rookie, Joe Sakic, near the front of the bus. Barely out of town, the bus skidded on the ice and crashed. The two rookies scrambled out of the shattered front windshield and Mr. Sakic was pulled immediately into a passing vehicle and taken to the hospital. Mr. Kennedy walked to the back of the bus, where three of his teammates were dead and a fourth crying out for help that no one could give.

“We were traumatized,” says Mr. Kennedy. “No different than the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] soldiers suffer from.”

The wily coach, Mr. James, turned down offers of psychological counselling for the players. He convinced the teenagers, their families and the town that hockey players have to learn to deal with adversity and the best solution was to “play through it” and move on.

They know now what Mr. James feared if certain players were ever to open up to mental-health professionals.

Mr. Kennedy entered counselling on several occasions before finally finding the help he needed in 2004 through a National Hockey League program. He has been clean and sober since, so committed to fitness that he now claims to be in far better shape, mostly through indoor cycling, than he was when he played. “I spin to keep my head from spinning,” he says.

Once Mr. Kennedy got his life back on track he founded, along with Wayne McNeil, Respect Group, which offers online programs for the prevention of abuse, bullying and harassment. His Child Advocacy Centre for victims of child abuse has processed some 4,000 cases in less than three years.

“What we are doing is trying to connect the dots,” says Mr. Kennedy. “Experts say that 80 per cent of mental-health issues are made up of early childhood abuse.” Lack of co-ordination among police, social workers and health workers often causes unnecessary delay in getting the help that’s needed.

At the Centre – which operates on a $1.5-million-a-year budget, two-thirds of which comes from corporate sponsors – each case is triaged by bringing necessary parties together, from police to, in certain cases, Treaty 7 First Nations representatives.

Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

“We’re doing in a day what used to take months,” Mr. Kennedy says.

Swift Current will launch a program that is intended to screen people who work with children.

“In my business,” says the mayor, who works as a financial adviser, “if I am going to handle other people’s money, I have to get certified. I have to take courses every year. But with kids, if I want to teach music or set up a daycare or whatever, there’s nothing. There’s no checks and balances.”

Therefore, Swift Current is launching a “Youth Certification and Safe Places” strategy. Those who engage with children will be “youth certified” – including a police background check and special training on how to become better role models.

A database would be formed of those approved but it would be up to organizations to determine who would require certification. While it would technically be on a voluntary basis, Mr. Schafer believes community pressure and parental demands will see most, if not all, seek certification.

“People look at Swift Current and say, ‘Why did you guys turn a blind eye?’ Well, there are blind eyes everywhere,” says the mayor. “If it can happen here, where everybody knows everybody, where everything gets discussed on ‘coffee row,’ then what about the big cities?

“Rather than being Swift Current, the community that didn’t want to talk about it, Swift Current will now become the place that does talk about it.”

Mr. Kennedy hopes that the Swift Current initiative will inspire other communities to take similar steps.

“Swift Current is in a position to be a leader in this issue,” he says. “It used to be, if you had a program like the one Swift Current is working toward, it meant you had a problem. Now, if you don’t have some program, people say, ‘We’re not signing up our kids.’

“This can be something to be proud of. This will give everyone the opportunity to move ahead.

“It will be a memorable day in Swift Current.”

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