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When NHL player Sheldon Kennedy in 1996 came forward to say he was sexually abused by his Canadian junior hockey coach, Graham James, there was speculation that at least one other professional player had been victimized. When James in 1997 was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes, he was convicted for abusing Kennedy and “one unnamed junior hockey player.”
With his new book, retired 16-year veteran Theoron Fleury confirms that player was him.
Retired hockey star Theoren Fleury has at long last confirmed that he was sexually abused by his junior coach, Graham James, a trauma he says drove him to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity throughout his otherwise impressive 16-year NHL career. “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” he writes in Playing with Fire, an autobiography to be released this week, and provided in advance to Maclean’s. “[James] destroyed my belief system. 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?”
It is an account the hockey world has long waited to hear, as Fleury’s career had been one of the most spectacularly troubled in NHL history. For years, the spark-plug forward has stone-walled questions about his time with James, even as his violent outbursts on the ice and binges off it pointed to something terrible in his past. Until the book, former Boston Bruin Sheldon Kennedy had been the only player to go public about being abused by James. He was hailed as a hero for coming forward, and said at the time one other NHL player had been abused. He did not name the player, and while speculation quickly enveloped Fleury, it died off when it became clear the player had no intention of addressing the issue.
In his book, however, Fleury lifts the lid on the entire harrowing tale, beginning when the Manitoba coach recruited him at 13 from his minor hockey team in Russell, Man., to play junior in Winnipeg. “Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years,” Fleury writes of the assaults, whose memories remain vivid to him. “An absolute nightmare, every day of my life.” James required him to sleep two nights a week at the coach’s house, rather than with the woman with whom he’d been billetted. He tried to fight off the coach at first, wrapping himself in blankets each night and pretending to sleep as James attempted to masturbate him and give him oral sex. But the fear of James’s advances left him sleepless, and exhaustion broke him down, he writes; so too did James’s frequent warnings that, without his coach’s support, he stood little chance of playing professional hockey.
Like Kennedy, Fleury was a young boy from a troubled home who was completely tossed into the whirlwind life of junior hockey without any parental figure back home to guide him. And like Kennedy, that abuse sent Fleury down a road of alcohol and drug abuse. Fleury went from toast of the town as the fiery little guy who lead Calgary to its only Stanley Cup title in 1988 to burning through $50 million in drugs, strippers and whores by the time he retired.
Since Kennedy’s public accusation of James, Canadian junior hockey coaches’ image has become the equivalent of the American Catholic priest — an all-powerful figure, particularly for troubled boys, who used that power to commit unspeakable acts that finally could be unspoken no more. Like the good Catholic priest, the good Canadian junior hockey coach is unfairly under more suspicion because of sins committed by others. No matter, though. The lesson, as always, is that no parent can blindly turn their child over to another adult authority with the message that you do what that person says — and we won’t believe a bad word you say.
After all, James hasn’t been the only case where a Canadian junior hockey coach has gone to trial over sexual crimes. In November 2008, an Ontario court acquitted former junior coach and player agent David Frost of sexual exploitation of minors, but the stories told of Frost-led sexcapades involving players led the judge in the case to call such goings-on at the junior level “a dark and very unhealthy side of hockey.”
Hopefully the book and the admission will set Fleury pack on the right path. As Kennedy could tell him, given some of his own slip-ups between 1996 and now, it won’t be easy.
By the way, what of James? He hasn’t commented on Fleury’s accusation. Last anyone heard, aAfter prison he left Canada for Europe — where he coached youth hockey. The Calgary Sun reports that James is now believed to be living outside of Montreal. It also said that after his conviction, James told the paper, when it asked if there were any more victims, that he “loved many people.”