Graham James, convicted in junior hockey sex assaults, granted full parole

Former junior hockey coach and convicted sex offender Graham James is granted full parole during his appearance at a hearing in Laval, Que.

'What I did was horrific ... I abused my position'

Graham James, a former junior hockey coach, pleaded guilty to the latest sexual assault allegations in 2015. At a parole board hearing in Quebec on Thursday, he was granted full parole. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Graham James, the former junior hockey coach who is now a convicted sex offender, has been granted full parole.

James, who was serving a seven-year sentence for sexually assaulting young players he coached in the 1990s, has been on day parole and living in a halfway house in the Montreal area since January.

Asked by the board if he knew his actions were wrong, James told his hearing in Laval, Que., on Thursday morning: "I had a serious time confronting the depths of what I had done."

He told the board he came to understand, as he underwent therapy during his first prison sentence in the late 1990s, that "what I did was horrific, that I abused my position."

James said he believes he has earned the right to be granted full parole.

"I've not re-offended and lived as productive a life as I can," he said. 

Must abide by several conditions 

In its decision, the parole board told James he has "made observable and measurable progress during your period of day parole."

The board set out several conditions James must abide by, including:

  • No contact with anyone under 18.
  • No communication with victims or their families.
  • No employment or volunteer work involving minors.

Risk assessment 

Dr. Patrick Baillie, a forensic psychologist in Calgary, says the parole board would have examined several factors in determining James's risk to the community, including his participation in programs while he was in custody, his compliance with discipline-related issues and the type of supports he will have when he is released.

"If you look at his history here, this is not an offence that happened after his prior conviction, so it wasn't as though he re-offended after his first release," he said.

"And so there isn't that sort of recidivism aspect to it."

At his last parole board hearing, Graham told the board he is still attracted to young men, but said he will never put himself in a position to re-offend.

"I don't think I can change attraction, but what I can change is my behaviour," he said.

He had asked for full parole at that time, but the federal parole board ruled it was premature, adding that James needed to show more "heartfelt" empathy.

He was granted day parole with conditions, including no contact with minors under 18, or his victims or their families. He was also required to report regularly to his parole officer.

After the decision in January, NHL star Theo Fleury, one of the players James repeatedly assaulted, had strong words about Canada's justice system. 

He condemned Canada for taking a soft-handed approach toward the sexual assault of minors.

He 'didn't see their unhappiness'

During January's parole hearing, James talked at length about how his "distorted view" at the time led him to believe that his actions were not abusive.

He said he saw his victims as friends and thought he was in love with them.

James told the board that going through the sexual offender treatment program during his first jail term helped him to see that his actions were abusive.

"I clearly didn't see their unhappiness," he said, calling it a great failing on his part.

"I think my life and the lives of many others would have been better had I not been a hockey coach."

James was a much-heralded coach while with the WHL. (Bill Becker/Canadian Press)

James had nearly completed a five-year sentence in 2015 for sex-related charges connected to five players during his time as a coach in the Western Hockey League when he pleaded guilty to a sexual assault involving another player, who has not been identified.

He was sentenced to two years for that assault, which took place between 1990 and 1991, when James was with the Swift Current Broncos in Saskatchewan. That time was tacked onto the sentence he was already serving.

James used his position and stature as a coach to abuse the player, according to the prosecutor in the case.

In 1997, James was sentenced to 3½ years after he pleaded guilty to 300 counts of abuse against Sheldon Kennedy, who had played for James and went on to an NHL career, and 50 counts against another player.

Pardon sparks reform

After his release from prison, James was pardoned by the National Parole Board in 2007 — a fact that didn't come to light until another victim came forward to The Canadian Press in 2010.

In his autobiography, Theo Fleury says that he was 14 years old when James started abusing him. Fleury went on to a career in the NHL. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The federal government later tightened up the rules surrounding federal pardons, now known as record suspensions, to make anyone in a position of authority over a victim ineligible. 

James was living in Mexico when Fleury released his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire, in which he said James had molested him.

In January 2010, Fleury filed a criminal complaint. James was convicted in 2012 for repeatedly assaulting Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the WHL.

In 2013, the Manitoba Court of Appeal made an unusual move, extending James's sentence to five years from two.