Out of the shadows

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

Fresh off a six-month stint in a California rehab centre, Sheldon Kennedy is ready to make a comeback. Not as a hockey player.

As a person.

Still haunted by demons born out of a sexually abusive relationship with former junior coach Graham James, the ex-Flames winger had disappeared from public view the last five years battling drug and alcohol problems that spiraled out of control and cost him his marriage.

"I went down and dealt with issues," said Kennedy, 36, in his first interview in well over a year.

"It was the first time that I actually made the choice to go down to go there on my own and actually want to do it. All the other times, everybody else told me I had to.

"It took me a long time to get my act together but for the first time ever I'm actually a work in recovery. I go to meetings on a daily basis and I work the steps.

"I realize that if I don't have that I don't have my daughter and I don't have anything."

A brilliant junior hockey player who turned to alcohol as a teen to numb the pain of James' horrific dominance in Swift Current, Kennedy is now hoping to achieve a sense of normalcy he's never had.

"I'm just trying to live my life because, before, I never lived -- I never felt anything. I was numb," said Kennedy, who was named Canada's top newsmaker in 1997, one year after telling police about James' rampant sexual deviance, which led to a three-and-a-half-year jail sentence for the former Hitmen coach.

"It's been nine months since I had a drink or did drugs," Kennedy said. "I'm healthy and ready and now I want to give back a little."

And he wants to do that through a series of athlete-driven initiatives he's working on, including a private-sector organization called See You in Torino that raises money for Olympians so they can focus solely on sports. It was at a fundraiser for the group Wednesday he made his first public appearance in years.

"This is the first time I felt comfortable enough to come out in public -- I was nervous today," said Kennedy, who represented Canada at the 1988 and 1989 World Juniors but had his eight-year NHL career marred by personal issues.

"I want to help these athletes because I know what it feels like when your passion is stolen.

"I think it's important to have a free mind. They say competition is 75% mental and if we can eliminate the mental struggles these athletes have, they're going to have a hell of a lot better chance at doing better.

"I know what it's like to perform and play with a lot on your mind and it's not fun. Maybe a part of me wants to create that freedom for them.

"I was talented enough to make it to the NHL despite all the circumstances. The way I was living, I was wrecking it every chance I had. If I hadn't had that passion stolen, I think I could have done a hell of a lot better."

Well-known for championing sexual abuse awareness programs like Hockey Canada's 'Speak Out,' Kennedy skated across Canada in 1998 on inline skates to raise $1.5 million for what he hoped would help build a ranch for abused children. The ranch never came to pass and the money was given to the Red Cross. But his dream of helping children lives on.

"I was really scared for a long time to get involved in anything because I knew I'd screw it up and I didn't want to," said Kennedy, who lives with his girlfriend on a farm south of the city where he boards horses.

"Now I feel strong enough and I'm ready to ease into things. I feel like I can be accountable now. I feel good today for the first time ever."

He pauses.

"Hopefully tomorrow will be good, too."


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