WINNIPEG: Ex-hockey coach gets 2 years for sex abuse, including former NHL star Fleury

WINNIPEG -- Reviled one-time junior hockey coach Graham James was sentenced to two years in prison today for sexually preying on two of his former players.

Graham James
Former hockey coach Graham James arrives at court on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 in Winnipeg for sentencing for repeatedly molesting two of his young players, former NHL star Theo Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt. James pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing them when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and '90s. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, John Woods)

WINNIPEG -- Reviled one-time junior hockey coach Graham James was sentenced to two years in prison today for sexually preying on two of his former players.

A spectator in the courtroom shouted "Yay," then spat out an expletive as James shook his lawyer's hand and was led away in handcuffs and taken into custody.

"Goodbye, you piece of (expletive)," the man said after Judge Catherine Carlson handed down her sentence.

Carlson made James stand up in the prisoner's box to hear his fate.

He 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.

"Mr. James's victims are multiple," Carlson said. "His behaviour was predatory and orchestrated to make victims dependent on him."

Carlson ordered that James have no contact with either of them.

Holt, 39, 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," he 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.

Crown attorney Colleen McDuff argued James violated the trust of his players and was at a high risk to reoffend.


Defense lawyer Evan Roitenberg said James had become the most "hated man in hockey" and had been punished enough.

It took Carlson almost 1 1/2 hours to outline the reasons for her decision. She characterized the case as complicated, but indicated that probation alone was not an option.

She acknowledged the significant attention the case garnered and the understandable public outrage it generated.

"There is no sentence this court can impose that will give back to Mr. Holt and Mr. Fleury that which was taken by Mr. James," she said.

She said 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.

Aggravating factors were that the victims were under 18 and James abused his position of trust, she said.

"The nature of the assaults were degrading and humiliating to these teenage boys," Carlson said.

"Mr. James's actions have had a significant long-term and devastating impact on the victims."


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 Crown had requested six years in prison, while James's lawyer wanted a conditional sentence of up to 18 months with no jail time.

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. His lawyer politely shouted at photographers to get out of the way.

James avoided eye contact with one of his other victims, former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, as well as Greg Gilhooly, another player who alleges he was assaulted by the former coach, but charges related to his allegations were stayed.

Kennedy was one of the original players to come forward with accusations to which James pleaded guilty in 1997. He 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.

"Obviously, it's not a sentence we all want to see," Kennedy said outside the courthouse. "At least he's going back to jail."

"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."


Gilhooly admitted to some satisfaction in seeing James sent to prison again, even though Gilhooly's accusations were never dealt with in court.

"It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful," he said. "Does it change my life on a go-forward basis? No. But did it put a smile on my face? Absofrigginlutely."

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.

At the hearing, the Crown's McDuff pointed out that James was highly respected in the hockey world. She said he violated that respect and told his victims he could make or break their careers with a phone call if they didn't comply.

Both Fleury and Holt said the legacy of James's molestation lasted for years.

"I was just a kid. A child," Fleury said in his victim impact statement. "I was completely under Graham James's control. And I was scared. I did not have the emotional skills, the knowledge or the ability to stop the rapes or change my circumstances. I felt lost, alone and helpless."

Defense lawyer Roitenberg argued James has gone through the therapy required of him and has channeled his desires to youthful-looking adults instead of children. A defense psychiatrist said James is at low risk to re-offend.


Gilhooly said he and Kennedy had spent much more time in therapy than James will have spent in jail.

James rose to address his victims for the first time at his sentencing hearing. He apologized to everyone from the hockey-loving public to the families of his players. He apologized to Fleury and Holt last.

"I wanted the best for you, but I did not give you my best. My actions forfeited our friendship. It is sad irony that it is you, being among the persons I liked the most, today like me the least," he said.

"I am deeply sorry. I was wrong."

The apology rang hollow for many who knew James. Gilhooly was in the courtroom that day last month and returned Tuesday to see him sentenced. Watching the former coach learn his fate is only one step in a lifetime of recovery, Gilhooly said.

"I believe this is something that I'm going to have to fight for the rest of my life. Until they can invent a pill that controls what you dream at night or what you have as a nightmare, you are never really over this stuff."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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