WINNIPEG - An Manitoba Court of Appeal judge bristled Monday at suggestions disgraced former hockey coach Graham James ever thought he had "loving" relationships with the players he abused.
Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg was arguing against a Crown appeal to increase the two years James received in March for abusing former NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt when they were in junior hockey.
"For me, you are pushing a big rock up a steep hill if you want me to accept that," said Justice Al MacInnes. He noted James threatened players to maintain their silence and how his victims wrapped themselves in blankets to fend off the abuse.
The Court of Appeal reserved decision on the Crown appeal.
MacInnes made it clear that if it had been up to him, the sentence would have been longer. But the Appeal Court judges said they were only looking at whether sentencing Judge Catherine Carlson strayed too far outside the acceptable guidelines.
James, who did not attend the hearing, is already eligible to ask for full parole and will be eligible for statutory release next summer, if his sentence remains unchanged.
In a phone interview, Holt said he was pleased to hear the judge's reaction and he would very much like to see James get more prison time.
"The outcome will never fit the crime, but it's a step in the right direction," he said.
James pleaded guilty earlier this year to sexually abusing Fleury and Holt. He was a respected coach in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and early 1990s when the abuse took place.
The Crown argued Monday that four years would have been more appropriate.
"He has to pay the price for what he did to his victims and the community," said Crown counsel Elizabeth Thomson, adding that the public needs to maintain confidence in the justice system.
Thomson said the trial judge erred in her application of sentencing principles and put too much weight on the 3 1/2 years James received in 1997 for abusing other young players.
James pleaded guilty in 1997 to abusing two young players, including NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. Although police asked James about Fleury at the time, he refused to talk about him unless Fleury himself came forward.
Fleury finally wrote about the abuse in a book a few years ago, leading to the new charges.
Roitenberg said the two-year sentence should stand, suggesting it is too harsh.
He said the sentencing judge took into consideration his client's rehabilitation in the 15 years between James's first sentence in 1997 and when the new charges were laid.
At trial, Roitenberg had argued for no jail time and says he still thinks that would be fair given the circumstances of the case.
Roitenberg said James had an "epiphany" while in counselling after he was first jailed and realized what he had done to his victims. Until then, he thought they were in loving relationships.
That was what set off MacInnes, one of the three on the panel hearing the case.
"If he thought that this was a loving relationship and he was doing the boys a favour, why would he have to threaten them to keep quiet?"
Holt also reacted strongly to the suggestion James thought he had loving relationships with the boys.
"I think it's clinically insane when he says that. Graham was a manipulator ... I can't even imagine what he talks about or what goes through his head."
James served about 18 months of his original sentence from 1997 before being released. He was eventually granted a pardon and left the country.
He coached briefly in Europe and then worked in Mexico for a Canadian company.
He was working there when the new charges were laid and he agreed to return and eventually pleaded guilty. The Crown agreed not to proceed with other charges involving another player, Greg Gilhooly.
Gilhooly was in court Monday and said later that it's important to get beyond the arguments of lawyers.
"There are victims of child sexual assault out there and the cost to society with the victims is intense," he said after the hearing.
"We focus on rehabilitating our criminals. We don't focus enough on rehabilitating our victims."