Sports

Darkening the hockey dream

A sex-abuse case ripples across the sports world

JAMES DEACON January 20 1997
Sports

Darkening the hockey dream

A sex-abuse case ripples across the sports world

JAMES DEACON January 20 1997

Darkening the hockey dream

Sports

A sex-abuse case ripples across the sports world

The Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse crisis and counselling agency does not usually have anything to do with hockey. The majority of its clients are sexually abused women and female adolescents. But ever since Jan. 2, when Western Hockey League coach Graham James was convicted of sexual assault and sent to a federal penitentiary for 3⅛ years, there has been a surge in calls to the agency’s 24-hour crisis line from sexual-abuse survivors—males in particular. CCASA executive director Danielle Aubry says the centre, which normally gets one man phoning every two or three days, received about 15 calls from men in the week following the James conviction. And most of them came after Sheldon Kennedy, one of James’s victims and now a Boston Bruins winger, went public with his harrowing tale of abuse. Aubry said the player’s decision to speak out may convince other male victims to seek help. “As a hockey player in Canada,” she said, “I think he has tremendous potential to be very influential for all kids, but more so for boys.”

The James case cut to the very heart of a Canadian institution and challenged basic assumptions about coaches, kids and the hell-bent pursuit of the hockey dream. Fans well know that major-junior hockey, the game’s last rung before teens turn professional, is a high-pressure, rough-and-tumble world where young men ride the buses that they hope will one day take them to the NHL. But James’s conviction cast Canada’s player-development system in a shocking new light and set off a wave of soul-searching throughout amateur sport. Kennedy’s courage was the silver lining. “It is a big thing for me,” said the married father of one, “to heighten awareness and let people know it is all right” to speak out.

Last week, even as other players came forward with new allegations of sexual improprieties in junior hockey, some observers were not surprised. University of Winnipeg sociology professor Sandra Kirby, who co-authored a 1996 study of sexual harassment and abuse of athletes, said that nearly nine per cent of current and retired national team members who responded to her poll reported a forced sexual assault by a coach or other team authority figure. One in five of those assaults was on an athlete who was under 16, and most went unreported. “The athletes almost unanimously said they did not know who to turn to,” she said. “Most sports agencies have policies in place, but athletes aren’t using them.”

The James conviction was stunning enough. The 43-year-old native of Summerside, P.E.I., admitted to assaulting Kennedy 300 times starting in 1984, and the other victim, whose identity was protected by a court-ordered publication ban, more than 50 times ending in 1994. But if anything, the bad news got worse last week. Although Calgary police said the investigation was closed, some reports claimed

James abused other players as well—including one who is a current NHL star— during the coach’s stints with WHL teams in Moose Jaw and Swift Current, Sask., between 1984 and 1994. And it emerged that team officials in both places were suspicious of his close relationships with some players and that the Moose Jaw Warriors had fired him as a result. However, WHL president Dev Dley said that no one made a formal complaint so the league did not investigate.

Canadian Hockey League commissioner Dave Branch, who presides over the country’s three top junior leagues, said the James case shows the need for victims to press charges. “If there has been sexual abuse in hockey,” he said, “then we should get it out in the open where we can deal with it.” In-

creasingly, that is exactly what is happening. In the south-central B.C. town of Grand Forks, the general manager of the local Junior B hockey team was charged with three counts of sexual assault on two young men. Donald Middleborough, who was a scout for Swift Current when James was the coach there, is scheduled to enter a plea in court on Jan. 30.

Meanwhile, several former WHL players charged that longtime Portland Winter Hawks owner Brian Shaw, who died of AIDS-related cancer in 1993, repeatedly propositioned players during his long career coaching and managing junior teams. Shaw, who also coached the Edmonton Oilers of the now-defunct World Hockey Association, allegedly lured the boys with gifts, trips to Las Vegas and promises to help their careers. Two league executives said they had concerns about Shaw at the time and told then-commissioner Ed Chynoweth, but that nothing was done. Chynoweth, now general manager of the WHL’s Edmonton Ice, denied hearing anything more than rumors. “If I had proof [Shaw] molested a player,” Chynoweth said, “I certainly like to think I would have stepped in and gotten more information.”

Researchers and psychologists, however, say that victims are reluctant to come forward. The offenders are usually in a position of power over the athletes, and the victims, especially boys in the macho environment of sports, feel ashamed for not being able to take care of themselves. And Judy Goss, a Toronto-based sports psychologist who works with the Canadian Olympic Association, says athletes who do press charges almost always report the abuse long after it occurred. “The predators have incredible power over the athletes,” she said.

Virtually every amateur sport in the country felt the impact of the James conviction. “I think that any sports organization would be stupid to stick its head in the sand on this issue,” said Harold Cliff, chief executive of the Canadian Swimming Association. “We all have to examine the policies we have in place and see if we can’t make them better.” For some parents, the James story undermines the accepted convention of families sending girls and boys away from home to pursue ever-higher levels of their sports. Officials and psychologists say that while most billeted athletes are well looked after, younger kids are vulnerable nonetheless. Kennedy, for instance, left home to play hockey at age 14 and was quickly befriended by James. And 14, many say, is simply too young. “In hockey, they get shuffled around and traded,” says Goss. “It makes it difficult to make friends at school, which in turn makes the coach so much more important in their lives.”

Beset by troubling revelations, the WHL announced it would require police checks on all coaches and team officials, and that it would set up an 800 telephone number for victims to confidentially report abuses. Branch said the CHL will enact national guidelines for harassment and abuse, possibly as soon as next fall. But some hockey officials maintained that screening would not keep out predators like James who had no police record— and that, for some leagues, such measures are not an option. ‘What police department has the time to review the backgrounds of 3,500 coaches?” asked John Gardner, president of the mammoth Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League. “And that doesn’t include our house leagues.”

Though incarcerated last week in the Edmonton Institution for psychiatric evaluation prior to being sent to a federal penitentiary, a seemingly unrepentant James telephoned media outlets to defend himself. He claimed his life in prison had been endangered when blustering hockey analyst Don Cherry launched an expletive-laden tirade against him on Hockey Night in Canada. James then went on to say he felt “betrayed” when Kennedy reported him to the police. “He doesn’t get it,” said Kennedy. “He just doesn’t get it.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, returned to the business of hockey last week. He scored one goal and set up the winner in the Bruins’ 5-4 triumph over the Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 9. But in a wider arena, his willingness to reveal the pain of prolonged abuse may have won a far greater victory. “It’s a horrible story, but I think it’s all for the best,” said University of British Columbia sports psychologist Susan Butt. “It was a very courageous thing for him to do, and maybe people will finally face up to the fact that this stuff happens in sport.”

JAMES DEACON

MARY NEMETH