WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A former Canadian hockey coach was sentenced on Tuesday to two years in prison for sexually abusing now-retired National Hockey League star Theo Fleury and another player when they were teenagers, in the latest case to call attention to an issue that has rocked North American amateur sports in recent months.
Graham James coached Western Canadian junior hockey teams during the 1980s and 1990s, grooming aspiring professional players who ranged in age from about 15 to 20 years.
His victims included Fleury and Fleury’s cousin, Todd Holt, both abused during separate periods when they were teenage junior players, the court in Winnipeg, Manitoba was told.
“At a young and impressionable age I was stalked, preyed upon and sexually assaulted over 150 times by an adult my family trusted completely,” Fleury said in a statement read last month in court by prosecuting lawyer Colleen Duff.
James abused Fleury between 1983 and 1985 and assaulted Holt from 1989 to 1994.
James had been sentenced to 3-1/2 years in jail in 1997 for molesting two other players.
The lawyer for the Manitoba justice department had asked for a six-year sentence. James’s lawyer, Evan Roitenberg, requested a 12- to 18-month conditional sentence, in which James would stay out of jail if he followed certain rules, arguing that the former coach was rehabilitated.
In a statement outside court, Holt said James “conned” Judge Catherine Carlson into giving him a lighter jail sentence.
“This sentence is nothing short of a national travesty,” he said.
Accusations against James predate those against Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State University.
Sandusky was indicted in November on 52 counts of abuse stemming from accusations he molested 10 boys between 1994 and 2008. Th e case rocked the U.S. college sports world and led to the dismissal of Penn State’s long-time head football coach, Joe Paterno, who died in January. University President Graham Spanier also lost his job.
Sexual abuse allegations were also made last year against an assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, Bernie Fine, who was fired from his job in November.
Canadian junior hockey players typically live with host families in small cities and towns for several years until some are drafted to play in the National Hockey League.
The practice is routine, but it left Fleury vulnerable to advances from James, who persuaded Fleury’s host family to let the player sleep at his home under the guise of school tutoring.
James also showered players with money, gifts and summer trips to places such as Disneyland, where he took advantage of them, reminding them that their chances of breaking into the pro ranks depended on him.
That left Fleury with the dilemma of returning to a dysfunctional home in Russell, Manitoba, or enduring James’s abuse in hopes of making hockey his career. Fleury later became a star player with the Calgary Flames, New York Rangers and other teams.
“One can only imagine a 15-year-old boy having to deal with this conflict. It’s unimaginable,” lawyer Duff said.
James, 59, apologized to his victims in February, and pleaded guilty earlier.
“The parents expected their sons to be safe. Not all were,” he said in court.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Peter Galloway