Graham James Pleads Guilty: Beloved Coach Turned Predatory Pedophile
WINNIPEG - To the hockey-loving public, Graham James was a charismatic, award-winning coach who helped groom future NHL stars.
He was a media darling, smooth-talking and quick with a Shakespeare quote. He seemed well-liked by his players.
He was a rising star in the coaching ranks of junior hockey on the Prairies. He led his Swift Current Broncos through a tragic bus crash that killed four players and on to several titles and a Memorial Cup.
But to his young victims, James was a predatory pedophile and master manipulator, who violated their trust by using their hopes and dreams of playing professional hockey.
He was the "father figure" who abused his young prospects, molesting them hundreds of times, while warning his victims they would never turn pro if they told anyone.
It was that dark side that James managed to keep secret while he coached young Canadian boys for more than two decades.
"(James) destroyed my belief system," wrote Theoren Fleury, the former Calgary Flames player who broke his silence about the abuse in his 2010 autobiography "Playing with Fire."
"The most influential adult in my life at the time was telling me that what I thought was wrong was right. I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment. And when you come down to it, that's all a person has. Once it's gone, how do you get it back?"
James was born in Summerside, P.E.I., in 1952 and moved to Winnipeg when he was 13. He played hockey as a boy but quit in 1970 because of asthma. Several years later, he graduated from university and worked briefly as a substitute teacher before getting heavily into coaching.
James took up with the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in 1979 and led the Fort Garry Blues to a provincial title.
Years later, some players would remember James's behaviour as "odd and uncomfortable." Mark Gobuty, a Blues player who was coached by James for a year in 1980, said James would give "special favours" to some players more ice time or invitations to his apartment.
"He always gave me the heebie-jeebies," he remembered later.
James rose quickly through the ranks of the junior hockey world.
In 1983, he became a scout for the Winnipeg Warriors of the Western Hockey League. That's when he recruited future NHLers Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy. He continued to advance, becoming the head coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors and then the Swift Current Broncos in 1986, when he acquired Kennedy in a trade.
In his first year as Broncos head coach, the team's bus was involved in a crash that killed four players. The man whose actions fuelled many sleepless nights for his victims spoke about the nightmares brought on by the crash.
"You're alone and...at night it gets dark and you're in your bedroom and the show comes on over and over again, the same thing, and you can't get it to stop," James said at a funeral service for the players. "I don't know if we'll ever shake that."
James continued to build a name for himself in Swift Current, leading the Broncos to a pair of Western Hockey League titles and a Memorial Cup during his eight-year stint as coach. In 1994, he joined the Calgary Hitmen as part-owner, general manager and head coach.
But behind the affable facade and burgeoning trophy case, there were glimpses of James's volatile side. He once partially stripped on the bench removing his jacket, tie, shirt and a shoe to protest a referee.
While in Moose Jaw, James reached over the glass, hit a fan with a hockey stick and gave him a black eye. He pleaded guilty to common assault in 1992 and got a conditional discharge.
"It was a difficult process and something I wouldn't want to go through again," he said at the time.
Several years later, he became the most reviled man in hockey, shattering the image many had of Canada's sport and the implicit trust they had in hockey coaches and officials.
Calgary police charged James with two counts of sexual assault involving over 300 incidents against two of his former players over a decade. James pleaded guilty in 1997 and was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.
One of those players was then-Boston Bruin Sheldon Kennedy.
Kennedy was a 14-year-old farm kid when James first molested him during a trip to Winnipeg for a hockey tournament. When Kennedy first resisted, James pulled out a shotgun and talked about how much he enjoyed killing ducks.
The abuse continued.
It haunted Kennedy for years, driving him to drugs, alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts.
"When I went to bed, I was (afraid) to go to sleep because I feared somebody would take advantage of me while I was sleeping," Kennedy said.
James later insinuated the relationship was consensual, even saying following his conviction that he hoped he and Kennedy could be friends someday.
"I think sometimes when love ceases to be a secret, it's no longer love and you can see it disappearing to a degree," James said.
There were further convictions. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to indecent assault on a 14-year-old boy he coached in Winnipeg in 1971.
That case prompted Kennedy to predict more former players would come forward.
"This is a small part of the wedge," he said at the time.
James's sentence expired on Canada Day in 2000. He seemed to disappear until a reporter found he was coaching again in Spain. One parent there said he knew about James's past, but suggested the man had changed and deserved a second chance.
"He doesn't think he'll have those temptations because of the hell he's been through," the father said. "He never tried to hide the truth."
James was fired in 2003 after the Canadian Hockey Association complained. Again, he seemed to disappear. Four years later, he quietly applied and was granted a pardon.
But his years of abuse caught up with him. In 2009, Fleury finally felt he could publicly confront the demons that had been plaguing him.
In his autobiography, Fleury said he was abused by James from the age of 14. He said James would visit and abuse him on the road fondling him or performing oral sex warning him that his dreams of playing pro hockey would be destroyed if he told anyone.
He said James took him and Kennedy to Disneyland where he said James would take turns molesting them in motel rooms. Fleury said he didn't think anyone would believe him. He also thought organized hockey would protect James from his allegations.
In 2010, Fleury filed a complaint with Winnipeg police that prompted an investigation.
"I have been reflecting on this a long time," Fleury said on his website. "I wanted to make the biggest impact on preventing this kind of thing from happening in the future."
That same year, reporters tracked James down in Guadalajara, Mexico, as he lugged his laundry down the street. The once brash hockey coach was thinner, greyer, hiding behind his hat and sunglasses. He apologized to the reporters for "your troubles" and referred questions to his Winnipeg lawyer.
Winnipeg police issued a Canada-wide warrant for James's arrest in October 2010. The disgraced coach faced nine new sex charges involving three boys including Fleury and spanning 1979 to 1994.
He turned himself in at Toronto's Pearson International Airport that same month. He was granted bail a year ago and has been living in Montreal ever since.
He pleaded guilty Wednesday to the charges involving Fleury and one other former player.
As the next chapter in his sordid history is written, whatever he contributed to the hockey world becomes even more obscured by the legacy of his abuses.
"I've been really upset, disappointed and angry at this," said his brother, Rusty James, at the time of James's 1997 conviction. "I always thought he brought a lot of good things to the game, but now not a lot of that will be remembered."-- By Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press