Graham James apologizes to sex-abuse victims

Graham James, the former junior hockey coach and convicted sexual abuser whose victims included ex-NHLers Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, has told a courtroom: "For my behaviour, I am deeply sorry.… Parents expected sons to be safe; not all were."

Ex-junior hockey coach who abused players will be sentenced March 20

Graham James conceals his face as he leaves the Winnipeg courthouse after his sentencing hearing late Wednesday afternoon. James will be sentenced on March 20. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Graham James, the former junior hockey coach and convicted sexual abuser whose victims included ex-NHLers Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, told a Winnipeg courtroom on Wednesday that he is "deeply sorry" for what he has done.

James, who pleaded guilty on Dec. 7 to sexually assaulting Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt, apologized to the "Canadian hockey public" and to the institution of hockey, which he said has been "found under a spotlight that my actions turned on."

James will be sentenced on March 20, Judge Catherine Carlson announced late Wednesday.

Reading from prepared remarks, James — who appeared gaunt with white hair — said he never thought he would appear before a judge and plead guilty.

"I stand before you with regret," he told the court.

James apologized to the players, parents and fans in the communities where he coached hockey.

"Parents expected sons to be safe; not all were," James told the court.

'Sad irony'

Directly addressing Fleury and Holt, James said: "I wanted the best for you, but did not give you my best. It is sad irony that it is you, being among the persons I liked the most, today like me the least."

At the conclusion of his statement, James said: "For my behaviour, I am deeply sorry. I was wrong."

The Crown argued earlier Wednesday that James should serve six years in prison for his crimes, which he committed while coaching Fleury and Holt in the 1980s and early '90s.

James's lawyer, Evan Roitenberg, asked for a 12- to 18-month conditional sentence that would be served in the community, along with conditions that would include a curfew, monitoring and counselling.

"I think Graham James's apology is fake," Holt told reporters outside court after the hearing. "I don't think he has that in him to apologize."

Fleury was not at the sentencing hearing, although his victim impact statement was entered in court. Holt came to the hearing to present his statement.

Kennedy, who along with ex-junior hockey prospect Greg Gilhooly came to court to witness the hearing in Winnipeg, said it felt weird seeing his former junior coach after 14 years.

James and Kennedy passed each other in the hall outside the courtroom Wednesday morning. Kennedy looked directly at James, but the former hockey coach avoided eye contact.

Star player 'broken, battered'

The court-ordered publication ban on Holt's name was lifted Wednesday.

Holt, who is Fleury's younger cousin, played for the Swift Current Broncos and was one of the team's most successful players both on and off the ice.

He finished his Broncos career with franchise records in goals (216) and points (423). He was also the only Bronco to ever win the fan-voted most popular player award four consecutive times.

Holt was drafted by the NHL's San Jose Sharks but never played in the league. He spent time with the Kansas City Blades (IHL), Fresno Falcons (WCHL), and Birmingham Bulls (ECHL) before heading overseas to play in Germany.

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On Wednesday morning, Holt sobbed as he read his victim impact statement aloud in court, as did Gilhooly, who was listening nearby.

Holt said he asked James at one point to be traded from the team but was told no one else wanted him. He was told he wouldn't make it without James, who served as Holt's billet while the player lived in Swift Current.

Holt said he lost his hockey career as he drowned his pain in substance abuse and self-hatred.

His family watched as he fell into his destructive habits, he said, adding his two sons lost their dad and his wife lost her husband after the marriage ended in divorce.

"I had nothing but shame and disgust when I looked in the mirror," Holt said. "My interpretation of love was tainted."

There's no way to depict the man that existed pre-Graham James, he added, saying that person is gone and he became a broken, battered young man who lost everything.

"I hid from everyone that cared for me," he said.

Holt said he hopes the sentence against James will bring some closure.

"What that man did to me and many others is the cruelest form of abuse," he said.

"I will not know what I could have ever been, but here's what I do know: I want peace and justice," he added. I want a chance to become the person I was and live the life I was meant to before it passes me by."

Crimes hurt 'bodies, souls and spirit'

While the sentencing hearing was underway, Fleury held a news conference in Vancouver to talk about the case and his victim impact statement.

'Do not show leniency to Graham James. He certainly never did to me or any of his other prey.'— Theoren Fleury

"Graham James preyed upon [his victims], took advantage of their trust and their age to commit heinous crimes on their bodies, souls and spirit," Fleury said in his statement.

"Do not show leniency to Graham James. He certainly never did to me or any of his other prey. He had many opportunities to stop, to get help, to change and he never took them. In fact, he kept going.

"He created situations where he could abuse me. He lied time and time again and he found how his authority over me could allow him to do whatever he wanted.

"He instilled not only physical pain but also deep emotional pain and left scars so deep and so wide, it took decades for me to sleep one night in peace.

"He was purposeful. He planned his assaults. He took the time and energy to sexually abuse me every chance he got and believe me, he will do it again and again and again if ever given the chance. He has no remorse."

Promised NHL career

Both Holt and Fleury said James would start abusing them while they were sleeping.

Holt said he was asleep on a couch when woke to find James fondling his feet. He yelled at James who apologized, saying he's gay and lonely with few friends. 

Holt lived at James' house but Fleury was billeted by a family in Moose Jaw. James, however, would convince the billets that Fleury needed to stay at his house a couple days each week for tutoring.

Court was told James assaulted Fleury 150 times over a two-year period in mid 1980s and that Fleury often cried himself to sleep. He would also wrap himself in blankets to ward off James, who would just pull them off. James would then rub Fleury's feet and masturbate. Then he would often perform oral sex on Fleury, court was told.

Fleury said he let James do it because "I was just done," exhausted from fighting him.

Both Holt and Fleury put up with the abuse because James promised them an NHL career. Holt believed James held his hockey career "in his hands" and worried if he didn't comply with the advances that would be ruined. Fleury was recruited at age 13 and moved from his hometown of Russell, Man., to play junior hockey in Winnipeg.

Reclaimed life

On Wednesday, Fleury told reporters about the impact James' crimes have had on his life.

Fleury battled drug and alcohol addictions that ultimately forced him out of the NHL and prompted him to reclaim his life.

Greg Gilhooly attended Wednesday's sentencing hearing, even though charges against James that involved him were stayed in December. (CBC)

"All the things that I lost through that part of my life, today I've gotten them all back," he said. "That's, you know, such a great, a great thing that’s happened in my life."

"I have apologized to as many people as I could and just told them that I was basically just trying to survive and I had very limited skills as to, you know, how to deal with it — how to deal with relationships, how to deal with my children and all that stuff," he added.

"I've had to relearn all those things over again."

The case against James involves a total of nine sex-related charges involving Fleury, Holt and Gilhooly.

While James pleaded guilty to the charges involving Fleury and Holt, the charges involving Gilhooly were stayed.

Pardoned in 2007

Kennedy, who was the first to come forward with sex-abuse allegations against James in 1996, said he has heard that James may get a conditional sentence on the latest charges.

In 1997, James pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Kennedy and two other young hockey players in the 1980s and '90s.

James was sentenced to 3½ years behind bars for those charges, but served just 18 months of that sentence before being released.  He moved to Mexico after being pardoned by the National Parole Board in 2007.

Then in 2009, Fleury revealed in his autobiography, Playing With Fire, that James had molested him.

Fleury then ignited the latest charges against James by going to police in Winnipeg in January 2010 and filing a criminal complaint.

Police launched an investigation that led to Gilhooly and the other complainant coming forward.

CBC News and The Globe and Mail jointly located James in Guadalajara, Mexico, in the spring of 2010.

James returned to Canada after Winnipeg police issued a warrant on the new charges that fall.

Kennedy pushes for tougher laws

Kennedy said he will continue to push for changes, regardless of what sentence James receives on the latest charges.

"I'm pushing for any crimes against a kid," he said.

Kennedy told a Senate committee on Tuesday that he supports proposed new mandatory-minimum sentences for sex offences against minors, but he also said no pardons should be granted to those offenders.

Former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, a sex-abuse victim, says he will keep pushing for tougher laws to protect children, regardless of what sentence James receives. ((Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press))

"He paid $50, got a rubber-stamp pardon, took off to Mexico with a clean record, [a] name change and a chance to start offending yet again," Kennedy said of James. "Now he's out on bail facing the same charges."

Kennedy reiterated those comments on Wednesday, saying, "There has to be consequences and if we look at the minimums, we're talking about a year. We're not talking about a nine-year minimum. Everybody needs a consequence."

Gilhooly agreed, saying, "Justice here won't truly be served until we take steps to make sure something like this never happens again."

He called for mandatory minimum sentences for child sex predators but said no sentence for James will change what happened to him.

"It's got to come to an end somehow, and I think it is important for me to stand up and look Graham in the face and let him know that he no longer has any power over me," he said.

"He can play whatever game he wants to play, denying what he did to me, but I know who he is and what he did."

With files from The Canadian Press