James apologizes to victims, players and Canadian hockey community

WINNIPEG — “The most hated man in hockey” stood in a courtroom Wednesday and apologized for the sexual abuse which shattered the trust of the hockey world and the lives of some of its most promising players.

Former hockey players Todd Holt and Sheldon Kennedy embrace outside the Law Courts following Graham James' sentencing hearing in Winnipeg

WINNIPEG — “The most hated man in hockey” stood in a courtroom Wednesday and apologized for the sexual abuse which shattered the trust of the hockey world and the lives of some of its most promising players.

“I stand before you with regret, a word which has been described as insight that comes one day too late. I also stand before you to apologize,” former junior coach Graham James read from a prepared statement at his sentencing hearing.

“I apologize to the Canadian hockey public whose interest in the national game should be found in celebration, not trouble like what I’ve caused.”

Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, an earlier victim of James’ abuse, rejected the apology.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “Really, Graham James is a liar. He’s been a liar since the day I met him.”

James apologized to the players he coached, whose only motivation was the love of hockey and the desire to win.

“Parents expected their sons to be safe. Not all were. I apologize to the parents and the families of those most personally affected. I knew you. I liked you and I abused the trust you put in me.

“The fault is mine alone.”

He saved the most direct apology for last.

“Finally, and most importantly, I apologize to Theoren Fleury and to Todd Holt, against whom I have offended. I wanted the best for you but I did not give you my best.

“My actions forfeited our friendship. It is sad irony that it is you, being among the persons I liked the most, today like me the least,” he said, his voice faltering briefly.

“I am deeply sorry. I was wrong.”

James, 59, pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing Fleury and Holt when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and ’90s.

It’s his third time before the courts for similar incidents. He pleaded guilty to sexual abuse against Kennedy 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. While still in custody he received a concurrent sentence after pleading guilty to a similar charge involving another boy.

Crown counsel Coleen McDuff asked that James serve six years in prison. Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg asked that he be given a conditional sentence of 12 to 18 months.

Justice Catherine Carlson reserved her decision to March 20.

Earlier, McDuff explained in court how James would groom his victims for the sexual abuse to come, then hold them in his sway by threatening to take away the hockey they so dearly loved.

She said his players looked up to him because he was highly respected in the hockey world. They also believed — and were told by the coach — that he could make or break their careers.

Fleury and his cousin Holt were teenagers hoping to make it big. Court heard both of their lives were almost destroyed as they struggled with their demons for years before coming forward to police with their accusations.

Holt’s name was previously protected by a publication ban, but that was lifted Wednesday.

James faced a total of nine charges dating back to between 1979 and 1994 involving Fleury, Holt and Greg Gilhooly, who never played for James but said he was also abused by him. The charges involving Gilhooly were stayed.

Roitenberg said James’ punishment has gone beyond the year and a half he spent in prison after his conviction in 1997. He said his client has become “the most hated man in Canada, certainly the most hated man in hockey.”

He claimed James has been vilified in the media and is not the “beast” he has been made out to be. The lawyer likened the case to the Salem witch trials.

“He has become the bogeyman, all things are his fault.”

Roitenberg suggested the sentence could include a curfew and any other conditions the court may wish to impose.

“You can’t sentence to appease the public,” Roitenberg told court as he argued that James did not deserve to spend more time in a jail. “You have to remember the easiest thing to do is often the most popular, but the right thing to do is often the hardest.”

McDuff told how James kept Fleury close to him in the early 1980s when he played for the Western Hockey League Winnipeg Warriors and then in Moose Jaw, when the team moved there after the 1983-84 season.

McDuff said Fleury, who was only 14, had tremendous respect for James at first.

“James was effectively revered in the hockey world at that time,” she said at the hearing Wednesday. “It was recognized and understood he had a tremendous amount of power.”

“I was a boy with a big dream and the talent to match,” Fleury said in his victim impact statement.

“I played hockey in the early morning hours, after school, on the weekends and holidays. I even dreamed of hockey. Everyone in my life knew of my passion and my talent, including convicted pedophile Graham James.”

McDuff said James convinced the teenager to come to his apartment so he could tutor him. Staying the night became a requirement.

The bedroom windows were covered and lesser forms of sex assault — fondling and groping — eventually grew into more serious abuse as Fleury grew exhausted from fighting James off.

“This was predatory and thought-out behaviour,” McDuff said.

Fleury estimates he was assaulted about 150 times in total. He was told he could return home — with no prospects of a hockey career — or stick it out with James, who promised to get him into the National Hockey League.

“I was just a kid. A child,” Fleury said in his 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.”

McDuff said it was much the same with Holt, who endured hundreds of assaults starting in 1989 and going until 1994. Holt, who played with the WHL Swift Current Broncos, would eventually be offered money by James in exchange for sexual acts.

James told the young player he was lonely, gay and had no friends.

Holt remembers sitting in his car, looking at the money, and crying, McDuff said.

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