Sheldon Kennedy has come a long way from being sexually abused by junior coach Graham James to the Order of Canada over the span of almost 30 years. His story is told wonderfully in the documentary ‘Swift Current.’
The documentary Swift Current was a big hit at the Rendevous With Madness Film Festival in Toronto earlier this month. “The house was packed,” one observer said afterwards. “And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
The film, which will reach a mass audience on Global on November 21, profiles the life of Sheldon Kennedy, the former NHLer who for years as a teenager was sexually assaulted by junior coach Graham James in the 1980s. It chronicles his decision to go public with the allegation in 1997 and follows his tumultuous emotional struggles in the ensuing decade and his subsequent rise to the point he received the Order of Canada in 2015.
If you don’t know the Sheldon Kennedy story, it’s about as griping as real-life adventure gets. The Elkhorn, Man., native was also 17 when the Swift Current Broncos bus went off the TransCanada Highway in 1986 and killed four teammates.
If you are familiar with the Kennedy saga, you see the story pushed further along to the good work the 46-year-old is doing today.
The documentary was the brainchild of Joshua Rofe, a New York native who grew up a hockey fan and was taken by the Kennedy story.
“One week The Hockey News showed up at the door and Sheldon was on the cover and the story had broke,” Rofe said. “I was 14. I never forgot it. I had no concept of what it meant. I couldn’t put it down. I felt sick to my stomach.”
Rofe’s first foray into documentaries was the related production Lost For Life, which profiled juveniles serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. He came to the conclusion all of those juveniles suffered severe childhood trauma. His first attempt to talk to Kennedy and Respect Group Inc., business partner Wayne McNeil to do a documentary on Kennedy’s story was met with resistance. But eventually, Rofe got his message through.
“I felt this story needed to be told,” Rofe said. “If we’re going to do this, we have to show people what’s it’s like to try and come back from this. The story told thus far was NHL player comes forward, rides off into the sunset, but inside is experiencing the worst hell on earth trying to recover from this trauma.”
The documentary also has original footage of two 21-year-old young adults stepping forward at a conference Kennedy spoke at Durham College in Oshawa with allegations of being sexually abused by family members or family friends. Then the film follows their real-life struggles, offering parallel narratives to Sheldon’s story.
For me, the most gripping part of the documentary was the scene with the two victims sitting in an office with Kennedy listening to him offer guidance in dealing with that trauma. “We’re not going to be normal,” he tells them, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a good life.”
Kennedy hit rock bottom in the years after he stepped forward with the allegations that eventually sent James to prison. Substance abuse, a suicide attempt, seven different treatment centers. But he’s been clean now for more than a decade and the Sheldon Kennedy Advocacy Centre in Calgary and area averages 120 investigations of child sexual abuse per month. It has dozens of social workers, paediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists and investigators on staff. It goes well beyond the boundaries of hockey.
“The documentary connects the dots,” Kennedy said. “They all connect back to early childhood trauma. Adverse childhood experiences. Hence the reason why the film and the work we’re trying to do is connect the dots. To make sense of the invisible damage that comes with this. There’s been physical damage done is the development of the brain.”
And both Rofe and Kennedy agree, behind the dark veneer of the documentary storyline, there’s a bright light of hope.
Said Kennedy: “Beyond the telling of the story, there’s also hope and solution. Before we were pushing the ball up the hill. Now the ball’s going down the other side of the hill and we have to keep it focused.”
‘Swift Current’ airs on Global across Canada on November 21 at 8pm CT, and 9pm everywhere else.