Theo Fleury, Shame and honor – telling the truth
The sports industry experienced a terrible end to 2011, stung by allegations of coaches closely linked to two of America’s most important college sports programs had abused children entrusted to their care. Early November began with former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky’s indictment on more than 50 charges of sexually abusing children. Syracuse’s men’s basketball program was tainted by allegations long-time associate Head Coach Bernie Fine had abused two former Orange ball boys.
In the mid-1990’s, Canadian hockey felt the shame of adult male predators taking advantage of, and ruining the lives of, the young men in which Canadian hockey parents had put their faith.
Graham James was elected The Hockey News “Man of the Year” in 1989 after coaching the Swift Current Broncos of Western Hockey League (major junior league and the premier NHL development league) to the WHL title. James began his junior hockey coaching career in 1984.
In 1996, former National Hockey League player Sheldon Kennedy and another unnamed man came forward with allegations that James had abused them in 1984 and 1985. On January 2, 1997, James pleaded guilty to 350 sexual assaults against the two players, and was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail. He was paroled in 2001. James was handed a full pardon from the Canadian government in 2007 – exonerated for the unspeakable sins he had committed. Kennedy and the unnamed victim weren’t the only young men to be abused by James.
Graham left Canada soon after he was pardoned, settling in Spain, where he resumed coaching young hockey players. He was banned from ever coaching again in Canada after his 1997 conviction. That ban didn’t extend to Europe. When the Canadian Hockey Association learned that James was coaching in Spain, the CHA notified European ice hockey officials and he was fired.
Theo Fleury’s National Hockey League career lasted 16 seasons, 16 seasons most hockey insiders never believed Fleury would play. One of the smallest players of his generation, Fleury played in a physical style that often led to altercations on and off the ice.
As a junior hockey player representing Canada, Fleury was at the center of the infamous “punch-up” in Piestany, a brawl that resulted in the disqualification of both Canada and the Soviet Union from the 1987 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships. Fleury collected over 1,000 points during his NHL career and was a member of the Calgary Flames 1989 Stanley Cup championship team.
Fleury battled demons throughout his NHL career – drugs and alcohol. Fleury endured a very different battle, as a 14-year old when he first met Graham James.
In his 2009 autobiography “Playing with Fire” Fleury alleged he had been sexually abused by James as a 14-year-old. The book became a best-seller in Canada. The increased interest in Fleury's story led to police filing additional abuse charges against James, who subsequently pleaded guilty to charges of sexual assault. Fleury has since become an advocate for sexual abuse victims, and has developed a career as a public speaker.
In December, James was convicted of abusing Fleury and another young hockey player. James will be sentenced in a Winnipeg court on Tuesday for the crimes he committed against Fleury and the other unnamed victim.
Fleury read a heart wrenching victim impact statement at Graham James’ sentencing hearing last month in Winnipeg: “At 14, I figured I could get through it myself. I planned to wrap myself up in a blanket at bedtime again. I still had some fight left in me.
“I was billeted with a woman named Mrs. Bennett, but Graham James insisted I sleep over at his house at least twice a week. The days I had to go over to Graham’s filled me with dread. From the moment I woke up I would start making up excuses, which never worked. I could say, “My dad died.” “So what? You’re comin’ over and you’re not getting a paycheque if you don’t.” I couldn’t rub two nickels together. And I couldn’t ask my parents for money, because they had none. I relied on Graham for everything. And that’s the way he wanted it. I could not shake him with a sledgehammer. Then he would pull the “poor me” stuff. “You don’t like me. You think I haven’t done anything for you.” I fought him off for a long, long time. I would get absolutely no sleep. None. I was on guard.
“He’d wait until the middle of the night, and then he’d crawl around the room in the dark on his hands and knees. He had the blinds duct-taped to the windows so no light could get in. It was the same every time. He would start massaging my feet and I wouldn’t move, pretending to be asleep. He would try to come up higher, but with that blanket wrapped so tight, he couldn’t get at me. The whole charade was taking a toll. I would drag myself to school the next day and fall asleep in class.
“Graham convinced me that, if not for him and his help, I would not be going to the National Hockey League. As far as I was concerned, the reason for my whole existence was to make it to The Show. My only worth to anyone was my ability to play hockey. What was the point of living if I had no value? He was in my ear that whole year. He told me I had to listen to him, do as he said because he was my only chance to make it. No one else had been beating the door down to draft me. I hadn’t grown much, and although I ate non-stop I put on maybe fifteen pounds, tops. A guy my size in the Western Hockey League was unheard of.
“It took a full year, but finally, on the night we heard that Winnipeg had sold the Warriors to Moose Jaw and we would be moving there, he just broke me down. I was exhausted. He had put himself in a position of full power and control. In 2005, I read an article in the New York Times that described how military doctors at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba advised interrogators on how to break prisoners down by increasing their stress levels and exploiting their fears. Boy, did I relate to that.
“At least twice a week that first year, Graham would bother me and I’d fend him off. But that night, I left the blanket on the bed. I was 14. Kids are funny. Each time I stayed over, I hoped that maybe he would leave me alone. I mean, he would act perfectly normal all evening. We’d watch a movie and he would make popcorn. We’d talk hockey and strategy. He would give no indication about what he was planning to do.
“The first few times he got at me weren’t so bad because I was gone. I would open my eyes and he would be standing over me. I knew something had happened, but I was not sure what. The mind can do some amazing things. Even years later in therapy, when telling the counselor about it, I would check out — leave my body. She’d have to literally shake me to bring me back. But I wasn’t always able to do that. He started a routine whenever I was over — masturbate on my feet, perform oral sex, then let me sleep.
“I thought about telling, but who could I turn to? Who would believe me over him? And what would happen if I did tell? I wasn’t stupid; I could see how it would play. I would have been stigmatized forever as the kid who was molested by his coach. The victim. Would minor hockey have said, “Wow, we better watch out for Theoren and protect him because he told the truth?” No. It would have been, James was a pervert and Fleury “let him” molest him. Or I would be the equally pervy kid who had a “relationship” with his coach. Would I have been invited to the Hockey Canada camp that led to Piestany, which led to the NHL? Get real.”
Theo Fleury has spent a lifetime haunted by what Graham James inflicted on him when he was 14, too young, too impressionable and too naïve to fight back. Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy were two of Graham James many victims, two men who managed to overcame the shame Graham James made them feel to play in the National Hockey League.
As reprehensible as the allegations are that Jerry Sandusky is facing, if it’s possible, Graham James took the sexual abuse of young men to an even lower level. James convinced Fleury, Kennedy and countless other young hockey players – teenagers – that he held their fate, their dreams and if they told anyone what he had done to them – their lives, their dreams would end.
Fleury and Kennedy must have felt unimaginable shame. At times, they must have found it impossible to face their teammates, their friends, and their family. They were boys becoming men, suffering abuse day after day from a predator. Tuesday, Graham James will face justice.
For Sports Business News, this is Howard Bloom