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Graham James encounteres the media ouside the courthouse following a court hearing in Winnipeg, Feb. 22, 2012. (Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Graham James encounteres the media ouside the courthouse following a court hearing in Winnipeg, Feb. 22, 2012. (Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Hockey coach abuse trial

'I'm not a victim anymore. I'm a survivor.' Add to ...

When Manitoba judge Catherine Carlson rules on Tuesday whether to send former hockey coach Graham James back to prison for sexually abusing two former players, Todd Holt won’t be there.

Mr. Holt endured five years of abuse at the hands of Mr. James while playing for the Swift Current Broncos in the early 1990s. He only came forward publicly last month during a hearing to decide Mr. James’s fate. Mr. Holt told the court about his years of horror under Mr. James and the shambles his life had become. Looking directly at Judge Carlson, Mr. Holt added that all he wanted was peace and justice.

It’s not clear if he will get either.

Whatever Judge Carlson rules, the saga of Mr. James will linger in all of its complexity. Mr. James’s lawyer, Evan Roitenberg, argued passionately last month that Mr. James was not a monster and that sending him back to jail would serve no purpose. He noted that Mr. James was sentenced to three and a half years in 1997 for assaults on two other former players, including one-time NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, and he served roughly 20 months before being released on parole. The current case, involving Mr. Holt and his cousin Theo Fleury, who also played in the NHL, arose afterward and Mr. James pleaded guilty last year to assaulting them as well.

What would more prison time accomplish, Mr. Roitenberg asked the judge, given that Mr. James has not re-offended in more than 15 years and received years of treatment? And if all four assaults had been part of the initial case, it is unlikely Mr. James would have received a longer sentence anyway, he added.

Mr. Roitenberg went into Mr. James’s background, the constant moving as a child because his father was in the military and Mr. James’s rapid rise in the coaching ranks, which began when he was a teenager in Winnipeg. He spoke of Mr. James’s role in eliminating hazing from hockey and increasing educational opportunities for junior players. And he said Mr. James never felt comfortable in hockey as a gay man.

“You can’t sentence to appease the public,” he said, arguing that Mr. James should be given a conditional sentence of up to 18 months. “This case is unique.”

Then he stunned the court by pointing out that Mr. Holt had written a letter of reference for Mr. James during his sentencing in 1997. He also raised the fact that Mr. Fleury and Mr. James had gone into business together and remained friends for years. And he said Mr. Holt had asked Mr. James to help arrange a tryout with a Canadian national team and that they had also remained friends.

But all of that was countered by the gruesome details of the repeated, almost daily assaults by Mr. James against the players. In the case of Mr. Holt, Crown counsel Colleen McDuff said Mr. James threatened to ruin the young player’s career if he failed to comply and even paid him at times to perform sex acts. She added that the constant assaults permanently damaged Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury and that it was not surprising Mr. James’s hold over them continued for years. “A conditional sentence is in no way appropriate,” she said adding that Judge Carlson should impose a six-year prison term.

After the hearing, Mr. Holt denied writing the reference letter and called the revelation “shocking.”

“I would never offer Graham my hand,” he said, adding that he had no idea to what Mr. Roitenberg was referring. As he headed down the hallway, Mr. Holt said he came forward to help make a difference and “to do the right thing.”

“It’s a lot of hard work but at the end of the day, I can stand here today with strength and courage. and I’m going to be alright,” he added. “I’m not a victim anymore. I’m a survivor.”

On Tuesday, when Judge Carlson makes her ruling, Mr. Holt will be in Calgary, waiting to find out what happens. The judge has rejected a bid by media outlets to broadcast the hearing live, ruling that “this case is highly charged enough” and “it’s not going to become a spectacle.” She added that “if victims have to worry there may be a camera anywhere near the court proceedings, it is reasonable to expect they may not come forward.”

Mr. Holt made his own decision to come forward after months of consideration and he said last month that his life is now finally on track. “My life is fantastic.”

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