Hockey Coach Guilty of Sexual Assault

For the victims, there was no joy last week when junior hockey coach Graham James was sentenced to 3 ½ years in a federal penitentiary for sexually assaulting two former players. After provincial court Judge Frank Maloney read his decision, one of the unidentified victims, now an adult, wept on his wife's shoulder. And James, who admitted guilt after Crown and defence lawyers privately negotiated a jail term, was ashen as he was led from the court in chains. News of the assaults, which took place from 1984 to 1994, also stunned the cities (Moose Jaw and Swift Current, Sask., and Calgary) where he had coached Western Hockey League teams. But in his decision, Maloney said that James's abuse of trust would be felt across the country by players, parents and coaches alike. "The shock of these events to the hockey public," Maloney said, "is devastating."

There may be some consolation for the victims, one of whom was only 14 when the sexual assaults began. Since last September, when the investigation into James became public and he was forced to resign as coach and general manager of the WHL's Calgary Hitmen, the Canadian Hockey Association has been considering measures to deter pedophiles and sexual predators from seeking positions of authority in hockey. The umbrella organization for amateur hockey is drafting a screening policy that would require coaches and managers to submit to a background check of, among other things, their police record. CHA president Murray Costello said the association hopes to put a formal screening proposal before its board of directors later this month. "We are seeking legal guidance as to what we can and cannot do," he said.

Sadly, the 43-year-old James would probably have slipped through such a screen. Prior to last week's verdict, he had no police record, and he was admired in hockey for leading the Swift Current Broncos to victory in the 1989 Memorial Cup. But any goodwill towards James has vanished. Crown prosecutor Bruce Fraser said James exhibited "a contemptuous disregard" for the feelings of his victims, whom he had coerced with promises to help further their careers. "The coach is the father figure, the mentor and clearly an authority figure," Fraser said. "The player has a dream to make it to the NHL, and the coach can make or break that dream."

Calgary police say their investigation of James is closed, and Maloney imposed a publication ban to protect the players' identities. But a statement read into court said that the first victim endured more than 300 assaults during a five-year period, and the second victim suffered 50 assaults over three years. The team moved quickly to distance itself from its founding coach - Hitmen president Lorne Johnston says James's shares in the team were put in trust when he resigned. Still, his connection to the team is a public relations problem for other members of the ownership group, who include pro wrestler Bret (The Hitman) Hart and NHL stars Theoren Fleury of the Calgary Flames and Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche. Sakic says he was stunned when news about James broke last summer. Fleury, who played for James as a junior in Moose Jaw, said only: "If people want to speculate, they can."

Neither the CHA nor the WHL has banned James from coaching again, but his lawyer, Lorne Scott, says the conviction will likely hurt James's employment opportunities long after his incarceration ends. "In my experience as a defence counsel," Scott said, "people do not forget, or forgive, very quickly." Sakic, meanwhile, lauded the courage of the two players who pressed charges and helped put James behind bars. "The most important thing," Sakic said, "is that they can get on with their lives."

Maclean's January 13, 1997