Former junior hockey coach and convicted sex offender Graham James has pleaded guilty to sexual assaults involving two of his former players, including NHL star Theoren Fleury.
The move marks another chapter in what has become one of Canadian hockey’s darkest stories.
James entered the plea in a Winnipeg courtroom Wednesday via video link from Montreal.
The disgraced coach was originally facing nine charges of sexual assault involving three players spanning 1979 to 1994, but only pleaded guilty to charges involving two. The names of the two other players are protected under a court-ordered publication ban.
The 59-year-old James, who has been out on bail for almost a year and living in Montreal, will appear in Winnipeg in February to be sentenced.
He has already served a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for abusing other former players he coached, including former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy.
The most recent charges came after Fleury published an autobiography in which he described the abuse he suffered.
In the book ”Playing With Fire” the former Calgary Flames star told of how James recruited him at 13 to play in Winnipeg and then in Moose Jaw. He said James would visit and abuse him on the road – fondling him or performing oral sex. James obtained Fleury’s silence by threatening the youngster’s dream of one day playing in the NHL.
Fleury detailed how James took him and Kennedy to Disneyland, where he said James would take turns molesting them in motel rooms. James pleaded guilty to the charges involving Kennedy in 1997, but Fleury stayed silent until 2009.
The agreed statement of facts read out in the Winnipeg courtroom by Crown Colleen McDuff said James’s abuse of Fleury started in September 1983 and lasted until August 1985.
The statement said the encounters began with James fondling Fleury while he slept and escalated to the coach performing oral sex. The statement indicated it was much the same with the second victim. Those attacks took place between 1989 and 1994.
At a news conference in Calgary, Fleury criticized the justice system for how it handled the James case.
”Graham James pled guilty years ago, and then he was granted a pardon, after he was found in Mexico and brought back to Canada on these charges,” he said. ”He was given bail … this is what the mighty Canadian justice system allowed a previously convicted child rapist to do.”
Fleury said a convicted pedophile like James doesn’t change.
”I believe what people show me — he showed me he was and is a rapist. There is no changing a monster like that.”
He criticized the fact James remains on bail and suggested he should serve a lengthy sentence.
”It took me 27 years to get comfortable in my own skin,” Fleury said. ”To me, that’s a pretty decent sentence.”
Both Kennedy and Fleury spiraled downward as adults despite their professional success on the ice. They were both divorced, and both abused drugs and alcohol.
Fleury said the sexual abuse in his teen years transformed him from a confused young man into an angry, self-loathing boozer who blew millions on cards, drugs and lap dancers.
Both have become outspoken advocates for abuse victims.
Fleury said he has no plans to attend James’ sentencing.
”I would rather be in a room full of survivors and victims.”
James was quietly pardoned for his crimes in 2007 – something that didn’t come to light until it was reported by The Canadian Press last year. The pardon, which was called ”deeply troubling and gravely disturbing” by the prime minister’s office, sparked widespread anger among James’s victims and the public.
The pardon didn’t erase his criminal record but meant the information was kept in a separate file and doesn’t show up on checks of the Canadian Police Information Centre, the key law-enforcement database used by the RCMP and other police forces.
The Conservative government has since overhauled the pardon system, increased fees and banned pardons for those convicted of sexual offences against a minor.
Kennedy said he was suicidal and couldn’t sleep for fear he would be taken advantage of again. The former NHL player, whose 1996 allegations led to James’ first sexual assault convictions, paid tribute to Greg Gilhooly, one of three new accusers.
”The way I’m looking at today is there were three people who came forward and Graham only pleaded guilty to two – and the other guy kind of got left out there and took one for the team, if you will,” said Kennedy.
”But he was the individual that brought to the forefront the whole pardon issue.”
Gilhooly, a former hockey player who is now a corporate lawyer in Ontario, called Wednesday’s ruling ”a fantastic deal” from a legal perspective – even though the charges involving him were stayed.
Fleury said the damage James has done remains untallied.
”There’s six of us who came forward, but there’s probably 140 guys out there, who, I can pretty much write their stories from start to finish, and where they are today and what has happened in their life.”