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personal essay

Details from a statue for abuse victim Martin Kruze, by artist Michael Irving.Michael Irving

This week in a Winnipeg courtroom, former National Hockey League star Theo Fleury told the stomach-twisting story of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his junior hockey coach, the now-infamous Graham James. For many, his victim-impact statement made what was once inconceivable conceivable.

My introduction to child abuse and hockey came almost 15 years ago when I became president of the Toronto Maple Leafs in June, 1997. Four months earlier, Martin Kruze had announced publicly that, as a child, he had been sexually abused by employees of Maple Leaf Gardens. Other victims came forward to tell similar life-shattering stories.

The matter quickly went into the hands of lawyers on both sides, but it also just hung in the air. There was more to say and do, I knew – but what?

In August, I got a letter from Mr. Kruze. He said he wanted to do something for child-abuse survivors, and not just for those from the Gardens, and was asking for our help. I put the letter into a small "get to" pile on my desk. Then the Leafs' training camp opened, then the season began – and then I got a call.

It was from a policeman. Martin Kruze had jumped off a bridge and died.

Why do we get it so wrong?

When I heard what had happened, I had no idea what to say or do.

I knew only that I needed to go to the funeral and called the family to ask permission. I walked the few blocks from Maple Leaf Gardens to the church. The Kruzes and their friends had to hate the Leafs, and hate me. But in every word spoken at that service and on every face was a deeper message: Please God, the Leafs, somebody – help make something at least a little bit good out of something so bad. Martin lived for a reason.

It is what any family would feel. But it was only after the funeral that we began to do things we should have done earlier.

We get things so wrong to protect reputations, of course – our own and those we care about: companies, organizations, teams, schools, churches, other people. It's to save ourselves from the horrendous implications we can imagine – legal liability, damages, loss of jobs, public humiliation – and ones far worse we can't. It's to save ourselves from life that, in the fullest sense, would truly change. We get things wrong because we want desperately that what may be true not be true.

We also get things wrong because ultimately, we say, the matter comes down to one person's word against that of another, and who's to know for sure? Except most of us think we do know. One person, an adult, has done something in his life – has an education, a job, a family. The other, whose life most often is a mess, has done little. Who do you believe?

And mostly we get things wrong, I think, because we don't believe such abuse can be true. The accused is a man who works with a team, an organization, a church, a school precisely because he likes kids. He wants to help kids, not hurt them. Besides, men don't do this to boys, and certainly not jocks who spit and swear, brag about girls, and coach teams. It can't be. Whatever you think you saw, you didn't see. There's something you missed; some other explanation.

We often miss what we "know" cannot be. In his recent book, In the Garden of Beasts, author Erik Larson describes what happened when William Dodd took up his post as U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933 just after Adolf Hitler had come to power. It takes Mr. Dodd a few months but eventually his reports to Washington suggest the impending dangers of Hitler's regime. Almost no one in the State Department believes him: This is Germany, one of the most civilized places on Earth – Germans could never have allowed the man Mr. Dodd describes to lead their country. So his superiors ask, who's right? Mr. Dodd or all the State Department experts? Mr. Dodd or the German people?

Similarly, a month before the 9/11 terror attacks, U.S. security agencies intercepted "chatter" that something big was about to happen. But they did nothing. Reading newspaper accounts about this years later, I realized I wouldn't have done anything, either. For me, no words would have allowed my mind to conceive of two planes being flown into the World Trade Center. Just as with Hitler and Germany, to me it couldn't have happened, so it wouldn't happen.

Sometimes the more impossible something seems, the more possible it is. That's what child abusers count on.

The consequences of doing nothing can be tragic, as I learned after Martin Kruze's death. It had never made sense to me before that those who allege abuse often wait a decade or more to reveal what has happened to them. This fact only adds to a skeptical counter-narrative that many hold about them – they wait until their alleged abusers are dead and can't defend themselves, they think. They have messed up their own lives with drugs and alcohol; this is their last chance at a big "score." They go after teams, schools, churches and kids organizations, which depend on public trust and have much to lose.

The truth is different. Imagine instead this story from inside the skin of a victim who is just 10 or 12 when it begins and has no idea what has just happened. Adults are supposed to do good things for kids. Adults are supposed to know what's best. What did I do to bring this on? What do I do now? What do I say? Who would understand? Who would believe me? Do I have a right not to feel the shame I feel?

What happened then stays a secret because, for them, it has to stay a secret. They turn into themselves, desperate to make sense of what has happened, so the feeling will go away, or become less important. It doesn't. Years pass. They stay focused inside themselves while their friends get on with life. The abused kids fall behind in school, lose friends. Some getting into drugs and alcohol. Many drop out. When they finally do speak out, they have lost so much time and so much learning that most never catch up. All this on top of whatever psychological damage they have suffered. Often their lives have been wrecked.

Theo Fleury and his fellow victims of Graham James, Todd Holt and Sheldon Kennedy, have done us a big service by telling their awful stories. They have also done themselves some good, finally getting out what has eaten up their lives for decades. But for them, the road ahead doesn't get easier. They have gone from being an innocent kid, to hockey star and finally, because of Graham James, apparent screw-up.

Now, by speaking out, they have become important again. But the spotlight will shift away quickly. What's next? Surviving abuse is an immense accomplishment, but it's not the identity victims need to see themselves through the rest of their lives. Because of Graham James, the challenge for Theo Fleury and the others is always ahead.

A final story. We had met before. Then, some weeks later, we saw each other again at a Leafs press conference, nodded and smiled. This was a year or two after Martin Kruze's death.

When the event ended, he came over. "I used to love you," he said. "Then I hated you."

He was about 40, tall, with thinning hair and a mustache.

"I dreamed I was you," he told me. "I loved hockey. I was tall. I was a goalie in every game I played. My parents bought me some brand-new equipment. I was you," he repeated. His 10-year-old self came back in his voice and eyes.

"I used to hang around outside the Gardens. I just wanted to see the players, any of them, live. An older guy who worked there somehow knew I really liked you – maybe I told him. He said he knew you. He said he could introduce me – when you were in town."

His voice and eyes began to change. "That's how it began. Then I hated you," he said, his hatred worn by time now gone from his voice.

"One morning, I went downstairs, picked up that new equipment and threw it into a garbage pail. I told my parents it'd been stolen. I never played again."

I was the bait.

Ken Dryden, a former MP and an author, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.

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