A stain on our game

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Graham James was last seen in a courtroom in the summer of 2015.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/12/2020 (720 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Graham James was last seen in a courtroom in the summer of 2015.

Appearing via video link from a Quebec prison, the disgraced junior hockey coach pleaded guilty in a Swift Current courtroom to sexual assault on one of his players during the early 1990s, and was sentenced to two additional years behind bars.

But that was not the end of the serial sex abuser’s saga; it was just one more chapter in his sordid life story.

Graham James arrives at court for sentencing in Winnipeg on March 20, 2012. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

While a significant number of the assaults occurred in Saskatchewan, where he coached both the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos, the James scandal has always been a Winnipeg story.

James worked his way up through the ranks here — in Winnipeg minor hockey, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League and the WHL’s Winnipeg Warriors.

It was with this backdrop that Free Press sports writer Jeff Hamilton began investigating James’ past, from his formative years growing up as an Air Force brat in St. James to his time as a substitute teacher in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division, and from his first foray into coaching minor hockey to his ultimate downfall.

Reporter Jeff Hamilton spoke to dozens of former players, childhood friends, educators and hockey colleagues and officials as part of this project. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Hamilton interviewed dozens of former players, childhood friends, educators and hockey colleagues and officials.

His investigation reveals an awkward teen who found confidence both in the classroom and at the rink, one that enabled him to embark on his trail of destructive criminal behaviour.

The investigation also paints a picture of complicity or, at the very least, wilful ignorance through all levels of the sport, which allowed James to abuse young players for years.

In total, James has been convicted of sexually assaulting five former players: Sheldon Kennedy, Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt have all publicly shared their ordeals; the identities of two others have been protected by publication bans.

Hamilton's investigation paints a picture of complicity -- or, at the very least, wilful ignorance -- through all levels of the sport, which allowed Graham James to abuse young players for years.

However, police estimate the true number of victims is between 25 and 100.

While powerful institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and prominent individuals, including Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, have all had their moments of reckoning, there has been no equivalent to the #MeToo movement in hockey.

This Free Press investigation attempts to change that narrative by giving voice to victims and asking questions of those who knew or ought to have known what was happening on their watch.

 


 

Jay Macaulay was trying to crack the WHL Broncos’ lineup in 1988; instead he became one more of Graham James’ victims

Jay MacAulay at the Central Community Centre hockey rink in Brandon. (Tim Smith for the Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

It’s a warm late-August afternoon and Jay Macaulay is sitting in the empty lobby of Winnipeg’s train station fidgeting with a pen.He just finished putting a check mark in his day planner, indicating another successfully finished workshop he’s required to attend each week as part of his parole conditions.

He says he feels good after the workshop meeting and is in a much better mood than he was earlier in the day; he had an argument with his ex-girlfriend over something he can’t even remember now.

Like him, she battles daily with drug addiction and though he’s been clean for two years, she still has an emotional hold over his life. She knows his triggers, Macaulay says, and when she’s high she can be especially difficult to deal with.

“Now that I’m sober, I can see all these people that used to be in my life struggling with the same problems I had,” says Macaulay, his 6-3 frame filling up his side of a small table. “What they’re dealing with is a death sentence.”

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Former friends, teammates of Graham James recall odd behaviour, but nothing to portend depravity to come

Ice rink at 17 Wing (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

It was midway through Sheldon Kennedy’s seventh NHL season, and the Calgary newspapers were calling for his head.After discovering Kennedy had collapsed into tears and was unable to suit up for the Calgary Flames’ April 8, 1996 game against the Edmonton Oilers, they published stories he had suffered a nervous breakdown.

The reports weren’t wrong. Kennedy was unravelling by the second, drinking and abusing drugs to dampen the pain of a dark secret. That night, at home, he emptied a box of Kleenex as tears streamed down his face.

Kennedy and his wife Jana had recently welcomed their newborn daughter, Ryan, into the world. With a new life to take care of, Kennedy could no longer live a lie.

After years of harming himself and those around him, and with Jana fearing the worst was yet to come, Kennedy broke his silence. He told her he had been sexually abused by his junior hockey coach.

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Graham James wasn't the only predator teaching at Silver Heights Collegiate

James (far right, back row) and Easton (far right, front row) played on a team from Silver Heights in 1977.

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IT’S an image that came to haunt Ivano Buccini.The longtime teacher at Silver Heights Collegiate recalled being impressed in the early 1980s after watching Graham James help a young hockey player with his homework in a classroom.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what a great coach to take this kind of interest,’” said Buccini, who died of cancer in March.

The youth was Theoren Fleury.

James had recruited Fleury, then 15, to leave Russell and come to Winnipeg for one year to attend school and play for the midget St. James Canadians — the same team James cut his teeth coaching in the late 1970s.

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Players describe an unravelling Broncos dressing room, reveal emotional scars decades later

Memorabilia in the basement at Todd Holt's house in Cochrane. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

Twenty-five games into the Swift Current Broncos’ 1993-94 season, Darren McLean had reached his breaking point.Days earlier, star forward Todd Holt had revealed a litany of horrors that he endured for years at the hands of their coach, Graham James.

The two players, who had been friends since playing minor hockey together in Estevan, Sask., were rooming together for the first time on a Broncos road trip.

After a night of heavy drinking, Holt summoned the courage to tell McLean a dark, twisted secret: James was terrorizing him behind closed doors, abusing him multiple times each week.

McLean, in his second season with the Broncos had, until that point, thought that if anything was going on between the two it could be consensual. Holt had spent a lot of time with James, was living at his house and used to spend meals with the coach while the rest of the team ate in a separate part of the restaurant.

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Despite suspicion, the hockey community failed to protect the players Graham James was abusing

1978 St.James Canadians

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Brian Bell still remembers the way Sheldon Kennedy walked into the Calgary Police Service’s District 6 office nearly 25 years ago.After being sexually abused hundreds of times by his former junior hockey coach Graham James, Kennedy was finally ready to share his painful truth.

“He was pretty fragile at the beginning and it took a number of conversations with us for him to relax,” Bell, a retired detective, says over the phone from his Calgary home.

“Nobody else had done what he has done in terms of coming forward and (facing) the stigma that was associated — and still is associated — with victims.”

Kennedy’s professional circumstances made it more challenging. He was in the public eye, still playing in the National Hockey League, and had been in and out of the league’s rehabilitation program for drug and alcohol abuse seven times.

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In the aftermath of Graham James, sports officials have long promised changes — but observers wonder where they are

A plaque at Innovation Credit Union iPlex in Swift Current commemorating the Broncos' 1989 Memorial Cup win has Graham James' name scratched out. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

To ensure Graham James would survive his stay in prison, the disgraced junior hockey coach would sometimes be required to move from one facility to the next.Serial sexual abusers are never popular behind prison walls. But because of the high public profile of some of his victims, including NHLers Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, there were many on the inside who were motivated to deliver vigilante justice.

Don Cherry, the bombastic frontman for the now-ended Coach's Corner feature on Hockey Night in Canada, set the tone early. In 1997, shortly after James was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for abusing Kennedy and another unnamed player with the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos, Cherry used his popular Saturday-night platform to declare the predatory coach should be "drawn and quartered" for what he did.

Shortly after, James contacted the Calgary Sun to say Cherry's comments had put his life in danger. He complained that he was now living in fear and lamented, ironically, how Cherry could get away with such irresponsible behaviour.

Years later, and not long before James was granted full parole in September 2016, he was transferred to a different facility. Word inside had already spread that James would be joining the population when he first surfaced to take his spot in the meal line.

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To know better is to do better

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sheldon Kennedy says abuse is not just a hockey issue; it’s a community issue, and we all must do better.

Posted:

After reading “A Stain on our Game” by Jeff Hamilton, I felt that I needed and wanted to share my views on the six-part article. I feel strongly that this story has critical teachings in it from which we all can learn.

What really hit close to home for me, again, was Jay Macaulay. I saw myself and so many others who have suffered significant trauma in their lives in Jay. I was there, and I was there for a long time, and it’s brutal. The important part, which I know now, is that there is a way out, and the opportunity to get your power and your life back.

Jay, you are not alone with your feelings; with hard work and continued commitment, recovery is possible for all of us.

Piecing this story together was so important, as it allows us to really understand the magnitude of how one pedophile can destroy the lives of so many victims. It also reveals how many knew and said nothing, and how there were countless missed opportunities to have stopped it. (And for clarification, throughout the series interviewees refer to Graham James as being "gay." That is not accurate; he is a sexual predator, and the two terms should not be confused.)

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Where is the outrage?

A plaque at Innovation Credit Union iPlex in Swift Current commemorating the Broncos' 1989 Memorial Cup win has Graham James' name scratched out. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

For days now, I have been poring through the incredible work of Jeff Hamilton’s "A Stain on Our Game: The Life and Destructive Legacy of Graham James." This painful chronicle of the path of destruction left by convicted sex offender Graham James has left me wrestling with the same question that has been on my mind for the last 20 years:

Where is the outrage?

It’s always astounded me how blind and numb we can be. Child sexual abuse is a very real and significant problem in our society today, and yet it takes tragic stories like this to raise this into the public consciousness and generate discussion. It takes the victims of these horrors coming forward and exposing their pain and suffering in order for us to pay attention.

How long will they keep our attention this time? It’s comfortable and convenient to just move on and ignore the travesties that take place in secrecy. This is not a hockey problem. This a societal problem. Child sexual abuse makes us uncomfortable, so we don’t give it the sustained focus it demands.

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Jay Macaulay, whose life was shattered by predator Graham James, dies of overdose

Jay Macaulay in Brandon on October 2, 2020. (Tim Smith for the Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted:

Free Press readers were first introduced to Jay Macaulay last December. Macaulay's journey, from Winnipeg hockey star to sexual assault victim, was the centrepiece of sports writer Jeff Hamilton's investigation into the legacy of sexual predator and disgraced hockey coach Graham James.

Macaulay revealed publicly for the first time, in unflinching details, the abuse he suffered as a member of the Swift Current Broncos team James coached in the late 1980s and how his life was irreparably damaged.

In the months that followed, his life was marked by hard-fought triumphs and, ultimately, tragedy. On Sunday, Macaulay died of an overdose at the age of 50.

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Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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