Graham James pleads guilty to sexual assaults on players

WINNIPEG — It was another dark moment in one of the blackest chapters in Canadian hockey.

Former junior coach and convicted sex offender Graham James pleaded guilty Wednesday to sexual assaults involving two of his former players, including NHL star Theoren Fleury.

A soft-spoken, emotionless James entered the plea in a Winnipeg courtroom via video link from Montreal.

The disgraced coach was originally facing nine charges of sexual assault involving three players between 1979 and 1994, but only pleaded guilty to charges involving Fleury and another victim, who name remains under a court-order publication ban.

Charges related to a third complainant, Greg Gilhooly, were stayed.

James has been out on bail for almost a year and is living in Montreal.

He is to be sentenced Feb. 22 and will have to appear in Winnipeg for that. There has been no deal struck on how he will be sentenced, but he remains on bail for now.

James already served a 3 1/2-year prison sentence for abusing other former players he coached, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy.

An 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.

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 Flame 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.

Gilhooly called Wednesday’s ruling “a fantastic deal” from a legal perspective — even though the charges involving him were stayed.

“The Crown gets a guilty plea,” said Gilhooly, a one-time junior hockey player who is now a corporate lawyer. “The Crown gets agreement to the statement of fact without opposition.

“And the Crown didn’t have to cut a deal on sentence. Everybody gets what they want but me.”

But 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.”

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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 spiralled 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.

Kennedy said he was suicidal and couldn’t sleep for fear he would be taken advantage of again.

Both have become outspoken advocates for abuse victims.

Fleury said he has no plans to attend James’s sentencing.

“I would rather be in a room full of survivors and victims.”

He was planning to travel to High Prairie, Alta., after speaking with reporters to meet with a victims services group.

He said he’s already moved past the trauma.

“Even before I went to Winnipeg to file a complaint with the Winnipeg Police Service, I was already at the point of victor in my life, so I never put any stock or end point to what was going to happen through the legal system.

“What the legal system has shown me is that it’s flawed, very, very seriously, and that we have to change.”

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.

Even so, 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.”