Kennedy comes clean

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 6:36 AM ET

Holed up in the furnace room of his ranch house south of Calgary, Sheldon Kennedy sat with a loaded shotgun in his hands and a bag of cocaine by his side.

In a the midst of a week-long drug and alcohol binge that saw him leave the house only to pick up more cocaine, the former NHL player's paranoia had him convinced there were strangers in the house.

Unable to sleep for two decades without nightmares of the sexual abuse he endured from junior hockey coach Graham James, Kennedy's inability to close his eyes for four days now stemmed from a different source of shame and isolation he tried hiding from the world -- his substance abuse. And although he'd been lost in countless drug- and alcohol-induced hazes before, this time he was sure he was about to die.

"I looked in the mirror and I was 135 pounds -- I had hit rock bottom," said Kennedy, recalling Dec. 7, 2004.

"I picked the phone up and called a friend in L.A. for help. She got hold of the NHLPA's substance-abuse program and I was done. I surrendered.

I haven't touched anything for 16 months."

It's been nine-and-a-half years since Kennedy took the first step towards relieving himself of the terrible burden that comes with suffering silently through years of sexual abuse.

However, despite a cross-Canada inline skate, a brief NHL comeback, a failed marriage and fatherhood, Kennedy's road to recovery had to go through a California rehab centre for six months before he could really get on with his life.

"With all the stuff I did to my body with the drugs and alcohol, it's amazing I'm still alive," said the former Flame (1994-96), sitting in a Calgary cafe for an exclusive Sun interview.

"Before, I had a lot to hide and booze made me feel comfortable around people. Alcohol controlled my life. I'm not sure if I was born with it or Graham made me do it but alcohol and pot made me sane and eventually it got to the point it almost killed me."

Insisting for the very first time he has control of his life, Kennedy spent the last year of sobriety penning his thoughts for a soon- to-be-released book, Why I Didn't Say Anything. Unlike during his inline skate to raise money and awareness for abuse victims, Kennedy feels that now he's helped himself, he can help others deal with emotions associated with abuse.

"Throughout the skate, I felt like a guy with a brown bag sitting on the street corner and then I'd have to go into a phone booth and throw the Superman cape on," said Kennedy, 36, who tarnished the skate by crashing a Hummer in Edmonton after drinking eight beers.

"That double life was eating me up because, yes, I was carrying the message of abuse but I still had a lot of shame and guilt from the drinking. I was getting 10 disclosures a day but I hadn't dealt with my own."

The book documents the abuse which started when Kennedy was 14 and takes the reader through the levels James went to cover his tracks:

How James had the audacity to abuse Kennedy in his parents' basement while they slept; how he refused to allow players therapy after a bus crash killed four Swift Current Broncos players; how he traded any player who got close to Kennedy; and how he painted Kennedy as a troublemaker and liar so potential abuse claims would be discounted.

Kennedy writes about how James paid players to have sex with girls while he watched from the closet; how players around the league taunted Kennedy for being 'Graham's little wife;' and how many people knew, or ought to have known, about the abuse that police estimate affected 75 to 150 of James' players.

Kennedy said fears NHLers knew of the abuse led him to try cocaine in 1990 as a Detroit Red Wing. Moving in with teammate and convicted drug smuggler Bob Probert only escalated the substance abuse.

Now a counselor with Calgary's ARC drug rehab centre, Kennedy is taking online classes with hopes of working with the NHLPA's substance abuse program that saved his life.

A life no longer burdened with secrets.


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