WINNIPEG - Outrage across Canada was swift and pointed Tuesday as reviled former junior hockey coach Graham James was sentenced to two years in prison for hundreds of sexual assaults on two of his teenage players.
James's lawyer said his client — "the most hated man in hockey" — got a fair trial, but few seemed to agree that the sentence fit the crime.
A spectator in the Winnipeg courtroom shouted "Yay!" then spat out a more colourful condemnation as James shook his lawyer's hand and was led away in handcuffs to begin serving his sentence.
"Goodbye, you piece of (expletive)," the man said as James was taken into custody.
Talk show phone lines lit up with people expressing harsh views of the sentence. Others took to Twitter to voice their disgust.
Judge Catherine Carlson made James stand up in the prisoner's box to hear his fate. The 59-year-old — looking gaunt, his head closely shaven — showed no emotion, but simply answered "yes" when she asked him if he understood the sentence.
James pleaded guilty 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 court is aware that this case has attracted significant public attention and that there is a sense of outrage about these offences. That is understandable," Carlson said in her lengthy sentence summation. "Serious offences were committed against vulnerable victims, with devastating results for those victims.
"There is no sentence this court can impose that will give back to Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury that which was taken from them by Mr. James.
"The court expects there is no sentence it can impose that the victims, and indeed many members of the public, will find satisfactory."
As Carlson predicted, James's victims 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," said Holt, who 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. While the Crown argued James violated the trust of his players and was at a high risk to reoffend, the defence said he had already served time for abusing players and has been rehabilitated.
For former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, one of the original players to come forward with accusations to which James pleaded guilty in 1997, hearing his abuser has reformed after 32 hours of therapy is a "joke."
"It's been a lifetime of working and rehabilitating with counsellors and two-hour sessions a week just to stay on track myself after the damage that Graham has inflicted, so to sit in there and hear that Graham James is rehabilitated, really drives me nuts," Kennedy said outside the courthouse.
"Obviously, it's not a sentence we all want to see. At least he's going back to jail."
James served about 18 months of a 3 1/2 year-sentence for molesting Kennedy and two other players before he got out of jail in 2000 and dropped out of public view.
Greg Gilhooly, one of James's alleged victims whose charges were stayed, said he and Kennedy have spent more time in therapy sessions than James has behind bars.
"It's unfathomable that a guy like Graham gets two years for what he did," added Gilhooly. "But at the same time, he is going to jail. He'll be in jail tonight. He's going to a penitentiary — and that's a good thing."
James's defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg said his client has been punished enough though public humiliation and hounding by the media.
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. Roitenberg shouted at photographers to get out of the way.
Roitenberg said James has accepted his fate.
"All he wanted was a fair hearing and I think he feels he got one," Roitenberg said. "Mr. James is very soft spoken, intelligent, insightful (and) understands who he is. He understands the difference between what he was, and who he is now, and accepts and recognizes the wrongs he's committed. But (he) is, at his heart, not an indecent man by any stretch of the imagination."
James is looking ahead to rebuilding his life once he is released from prison, Roitenberg said.
"I think Mr. James appreciates the nature of the crimes he committed. He wasn't seeking vindication," the lawyer said. "Hopefully when he is released from custody he'll be able to live a life. I think that's all he wants. I think that's all anybody should want for him."
It took Carlson almost 1 1/2 hours to outline the reasons for her decision to the packed courtroom. She characterized the case as complicated and said probation alone was not an option. It was obvious James had "total control" over the teens he molested because he threatened to end their promising hockey careers if they said anything, she said.
Aggravating factors were that the victims were under 18 and James abused his position of trust, she said.
"They were young, teenage boys. They had dreams and aspirations to be professional hockey players. They had hockey talent," Carlson said. "What happened to Mr. Fleury and Mr. Holt is every child's worst nightmare and every parent's worst nightmare."
The boys were trapped and subjected to "degrading and humiliating" assaults.
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. The last of James's offences occurred 18 years ago and he hasn't been convicted of any criminal offence since 1997, she said.
"The two-year sentence is a penitentiary sentence. It acknowledges the seriousness of Mr. James' offences. It means sending back to jail someone who has not reoffended in the last 15 years and has done all society has required of him during that time."
Many Canadians disagreed.
"Graham James gets two years for all the lives he's ruined? Someone caught with weed gets a harsher sentence," one person tweeted. "Is that justice?"
"Graham James's two-year sentence sends a powerful message: it isn't worth it for abuse victims to summon strength to tell police," wrote another. "It's a sad day for Canada."
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.
Both Fleury and Holt said the legacy of James's molestation lasted for years.
James apologized to his victims at his sentencing hearing but that was little more than a con, Fleury wrote in a joint statement with his cousin.
"Graham James once again perpetrated his crime and spread his sickness right through the courts of Canada. He conned the judge with his 'poor me' and 'I regret' statements," he said. "It is time that the predators know that they need to take notice and be scared — there is no place for you to hide.
"We are shedding light in those dark corners where you cower."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had Crown attorney Colleen McDuff's first name spelled wrong.