Former hockey coach and sex offender Graham James to be sentenced for abuse

Associated Press

WINNIPEG - Another chapter in the sex abuse scandal that rocked Canada's hockey world — turning an award-winning coach into "the most hated man in hockey" — is expected to come to a close Tuesday when Graham James is sentenced for repeatedly molesting two of his young players.

James pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing NHL star Theoren Fleury and his cousin Todd Holt when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and '90s. Charges involving a third player, Greg Gilhooly, were stayed.

The Crown is asking James serve six years in jail while defence lawyers have suggested a conditional sentence of up to 18 months is more appropriate.

While many will be watching the decision intently, at least one of James' victims will be absent. Former Calgary Flame Fleury wasn't in the courtroom to face his abuser during James's sentencing hearing last month and he won't be there when James learns his fate.

"The case was closed for me a long time ago," Fleury said in an interview. "I have moved on with my life. I'm not interested in going backwards. Why would I have to? Why would I need to?"

This will be James's third sentence for sexual abuse. A rising star in the junior hockey world, James first plummeted to notorious and reviled sexual predator when he pleaded guilty in 1997 to sexually abusing former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy when he, too, played in the junior league.

James served about 18 months of a 3 1/2 year-sentence before he got out of jail in 2000 and dropped out of public view. While still in custody he received a concurrent sentence after pleading guilty to a similar charge involving another boy.

Although Fleury once floated the idea that James should receive 27 years in jail — the length of time Fleury struggled privately before coming forward — he said his expectations are now low.

"We'll let the country of Canada, the voters of Canada, weigh in on this conversation when the sentencing does come down," he said. "I don't need to talk about it anymore because we know that the system is incredibly flawed."

That critique of the country's justice system is shared by James's other victims. Few are expecting Tuesday's sentence — regardless of what it might be — will mark the end of their suffering or provide them with total closure.

When James is sentenced, Holt said it will only mark the end of part of his healing process.

"It's a long road and whether Graham gets one day or 10 years, it's about me getting my life back and getting control of my life," he said. "That's the important thing to me."

Court heard James would single out his young victims, keeping them close to him and often separating them from their family by convincing them the teen needed tutoring and had to spend the night at his apartment.

The assaults began as fondling or groping while Fleury or Holt slept but escalated as the boys became exhausted fighting off the advances. Eventually, Holt was offered money by James in exchange for sexual acts. Both estimate they were assaulted hundreds of times and were threatened their hockey careers would suffer if they didn't comply.

The legacy of the abuse lasted for years. James took away "every part of me that my family had brought me up to be, and stole the son, brother and person that they loved," Holt said in his victim impact statement. No sentence imposed on James will change that, he said.

"It will never take back all that pain and all the disruption that I caused over my life," Holt said. "It won't take back all the pain that I've felt, all the tears but it will make me a better person today and tomorrow and the day after that."

The man who blazed a trail for James's other victims to step forward said he will be there to see his abuser sentenced once again.

Kennedy worries that too lenient a sentence might mean other victims won't come forward because they don't think anything will change.

"There's a possibility that Graham does get a conditional sentence and there's a possibility he gets a year. We'll see," said Kennedy, who stared down James at his sentencing hearing last month. "I think it's important to show up and show your face and be in the crowd and be present because some kids don't have that choice."

Although the sentencing will be an important milestone for some of James's victims, Kennedy said James doesn't wield any power over him anymore.

"Graham doesn't run my life anymore and when I was angry and running away from myself, he still had that power over me," he said. "I've worked at hard at getting out of being a victim and getting my life back and I think that's important."

Justice Catherine Carlson is weighing two very different arguments set out by the Crown and defence.

Crown attorney Coleen McDuff said James's behaviour was predatory and thought-out, right down to the dark covering on his bedroom windows when his victims spent the night.

She said James has not been reformed, noting a report prepared by a Toronto psychiatrist said James sees himself as misunderstood rather than a pedophile, and that makes him likely to reoffend.

Defence lawyer Evan Roitenberg argued James has gone through the therapy required of him and said he has channelled his desires to youthful-looking adults instead of children. He tabled several reference letters from people who describe James as reserved, polite, kind and decent. A defence psychiatrist said James is at low risk to reoffend.

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