WINNIPEG — Disgraced former junior hockey coach Graham James has been sentenced to two years in prison for sexually abusing two of his players.
One spectator in the Winnipeg courtroom Tuesday shouted “Yay,” while another spat out an expletive as James shook his lawyer’s hand and was led away in handcuffs.
Judge Catherine Carlson made James stand up in the prisoner’s box to hear his fate.
He showed no emotion, but simply answered “yes” when Carlson asked him if he understood the sentence.
“Mr. James’s victims are multiple,” she said. “His behaviour was predatory and orchestrated to make victims dependent on him.”
James pleaded guilty in December to repeatedly sexually abusing NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and ’90s.
Carlson ordered that James have no contact with either of them.
Holt responded immediately with disappointment.
“This sentence today is nothing short of a national travesty because we know that childhood abuse has reached epidemic proportions in our country,” he read from a statement at a news conference in Cochrane, Alta.
“Graham James is laughing all the way back to the life he has always led, knowing that justice for him is but a blip on the radar.”
The Crown had requested six years in prison, while James’s lawyer wanted a conditional sentence of up to 18 months with no jail time.
Crown Attorney Coleen McDuff argued James violated the trust of his players and is at a high risk to reoffend again.
Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg said James has become the most “hated man in hockey” and has been punished enough.
Carlson had characterized the case as complicated, but indicated that probation alone was not an option.
She acknowledged the significant attention the case garnered and the understandable public outrage it generated.
“There is no sentence this court can impose that will give back to Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury that which was taken by Mr James,” she said .
She said it’s obvious James had “total control” over the teens he molested, because he threatened to end their promising hockey careers if they said anything.
Aggravating factors were that the victims were under 18 and James abused his position of trust, she said.
“The nature of the assaults were degrading and humiliating to these teenage boys,” Carlson said.
“Mr. James’s actions have had a significant long-term and devastating impact on the victims.”
But the judge also pointed out that James expressed remorse, apologized to his victims and has experienced what she called “an extreme degree of humiliation” — factors that warranted a reduction in his sentence.
She said James could have fought extradition from Mexico, where he had been living, but voluntarily came back to face the charges. He pleaded guilty and has kept a regular full-time job.
James admitted in December to repeatedly sexually abusing retired NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and ’90s.
The Crown has requested six years in prison, while James’s lawyer wants a conditional sentence of up to 18 months with no jail time.
The Crown had argued that James violated the trust of his players and was at a high risk to reoffend.
The defence said James has become the most “hated man in hockey” and has been punished enough.
The disgraced one-time coach was wearing a red ski mask which concealed the lower portion of his face when he arrived at the courthouse. His lawyer politely shouted at photographers to get out of the way.
James avoided eye contact with one of his other victims, former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, as well as Greg Gilhooly, another player who alleges he was assaulted by the former coach, but charges related to his allegations were stayed.
Kennedy was the one who originally came forward with accusations against James and to which the coach pleaded guilty in 1997. He served about 18 months of a 3 1/2 year-sentence before he got out of jail in 2000 and dropped out of public view.
“Obviously, it’s a sentence we all want to see,” Kennedy said outside the courthouse. “At least he’s going back to jail.”
During sentencing arguments last month on the most-recent charges, court heard that James would single out his young victims and keep them close to him. He often separated them from their families by convincing their parents the teens needed tutoring and had to spend nights at his apartment.
The assaults began as fondling or groping while Fleury or Holt slept, but escalated as the boys became exhausted from fighting off the advances. Eventually, Holt was offered money by James in exchange for sexual acts. Both Fleury and Holt estimate they were assaulted hundreds of times.
At the hearing, Crown attorney Coleen McDuff pointed out that James was highly respected in the hockey world. She said he violated that respect and told his victims he could make or break their careers with a phone call if they didn’t comply.
Both Fleury and Holt said the legacy of James’s molestation lasted for years.
“I was just a kid. A child,” Fleury said in his victim impact statement. “I was completely under Graham James’s control. And I was scared. I did not have the emotional skills, the knowledge or the ability to stop the rapes or change my circumstances. I felt lost, alone and helpless.”
Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg argued James has gone through the therapy required of him and has channelled his desires to youthful-looking adults instead of children. A defence psychiatrist said James is at low risk to reoffend.