12/07/2011 03:31 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

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