CALGARY - It’s been almost 15 years since the hockey world heard the shocking details of how the sport’s most notorious sexual predator infiltrated our game and damaged the lives of two young victims.
Those of us sitting in the Calgary courtroom that snowy January day will never forget the chilling details of some of the 350 counts of sexual assault James pleaded guilty to against Sheldon Kennedy and another junior hockey player James used to coach.
Despite all that has changed in our game and the nation with regards to our heightened awareness of the issue the sport may be rocked again shortly after noon today.
It is then, in room 221 of a Winnipeg courtroom, the latest case against James will appear before a judge.
The room is set up with a video link allowing the disgraced coach to make an appearance from Montreal, where he has been out on bail for over a year.
While the case has been remanded several times over the past year as the Crown and defence discuss the case, Wednesday could be another ugly day in hockey history.
A court spokesperson said Tuesday, “The Crown does indicate that this appearance of the matter is expected to be a substantive appearance of the case.”
In other words, it may be time for another set of sickening details may come out again — the kind no one wants to hear.
The list of nine sexual assault charges James faces involving Theo Fleury and two other former players he coached includes gross indecency, sexual exploitation and indecent assault between 1983 and ’94.
Wednesday’s anticipated drama comes at a time when the U.S. is reeling from Penn State football program’s alleged sex scandal that has some labeling coach Jerry Sandusky the Graham James of football.
Allegedly using his coaching credentials as a way to betray the trust of young victims, Sandusky faces much the same sort of charges that landed James a 31/2 year jail sentence in ’97. Charismatic and considered to be an upstanding citizen as well as a solid coach, his pattern sounds all too familiar.
Hiding behind a persona that allowed unlimited access to gain even greater trust, James did unthinkable things to his first two victims for years, making it all too possible the latest set of accusations carry merit.
The fear that there are more victims out there was made worse when I asked James in a jailhouse interview shortly after being incarcerated in ’97 if there were, indeed, more victims. His response, after a lengthy pause, suggested simply that he cared about a lot of people.
The case has been delayed so many times that Fleury didn’t even know Wednesday could be a significant day in his life.
“I’m so far past that,” said Fleury, whose book cited abuse by James when playing for him in Moose Jaw.
“Going into it, I never really held out much hope in leaving it in the hands of the justice system. I almost want them to make a poor decision because then that’s an opportunity to show how backwards the system is. How many people put their hopes and dreams on a judge to make a decision and much of the time it never gives them closure?”
Clearly frustrated with the system, Fleury does believe that when the facts come out, it will be hard for Canadians to digest.
“Ya, but the truth needs to come out about this subject,” said Fleury, on his way to a speaking gig at a northern Alberta victims conference.
“We need details and need to know what these kids go through, so we can be educated. I’m OK with whatever happens.”
Through it all, Kennedy has become a stronger man — a man with a sense of purpose, dedicating his life to making Canada a safer place for youngsters. Whether it’s helping Hockey Canada radically change its approach to weeding out potential predators or assisting Canadian politicians and lawmakers with abuse education and prevention measures, Kennedy has quietly gone about being a great Canadian.
Next week, Kennedy will share his knowledge with a U.S. Senate Commission on child abuse prevention.
Indeed, out of something bad can come plenty of good, although that may be hard to believe Wednesday afternoon.
Eric Francis appears regularly as a panelist on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada.