Graham James apologizes to victims

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Convicted sex abuser and former junior hockey coach Graham James has apologized to his victims, his former players and the entire Canadian hockey community.

He made the apology during a sentencing hearing for abusing former NHL star Theo Fleury and another player, Todd Holt.

"I stand before you with regret, a word which has been described as insight that comes one day too late. I also stand before you to apologize," James read from a prepared statement.

"I apologize to the Canadian hockey public whose interest in the national game should be found in celebration, not trouble like what I've caused.

"I apologize to the institution of hockey, which I once belonged to, to the many good people who work only for the betterment of the sport and those under their care, an institution which found itself under a spotlight that my actions switched on."

His lawyer said James is rehabilitated and shouldn't have to go back to jail. Evan Roitenberg is asking that James receive 12-18 months' community service. He said his client has been vilified and James is not the "beast" he has been made out to be.

Justice Catherine Carlson reserved her decision to March 20, and James will be sentenced then.

James, 59, pleaded guilty in December to sexually abusing Fleury and Holt when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and '90s.

It's his third time before the courts for similar incidents. He pleaded guilty to sexual abuse against firmer NHL player Sheldon Kennedy in 1997.

Kennedy rejected James' apology.

"It doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "Really, Graham James is a liar. He's been a liar since the day I met him."

In Canada, the sex abuse case against James has received the type of attention and caused similar outrage to the scandals at Penn State involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

James served about 18 months of a 3½ year sentence before he got out of jail in 2000 and dropped out of public view. While still in custody he received a concurrent sentence after pleading guilty to a similar charge involving another boy.

Crown counsel Coleen McDuff asked that James serve six years in prison for the latest conviction.

Earlier, McDuff explained in court how James would groom his victims for the sexual abuse to come, then hold them in his sway by threatening to take away the hockey they so dearly loved.

She said his players looked up to him because he was highly respected in the hockey world. They also believed -- and were told by the coach -- that he could make or break their careers.

Fleury and his cousin, Holt, were teenagers hoping to make it big. Court heard both of their lives were almost destroyed as they struggled with their demons for years before coming forward to police with their accusations.

Holt's name was previously protected by a publication ban, but that was lifted Wednesday.

James faced a total of nine charges involving Fleury, Holt and Greg Gilhooly, who never played for James but said he was also abused by him, from 1979-94. The charges involving Gilhooly were stayed.

Fleury played 15 seasons in the NHL, mostly with the Calgary Flames and played in seven All-Star games. He wrote an autobiography titled "Playing With Fire" after he was done playing in which he accused Graham of abusing him for two years.

James saved the most direct apology for last.

"Finally, and most importantly, I apologize to Theoren Fleury and to Todd Holt, against whom I have offended. I wanted the best for you but I did not give you my best," he said.

"My actions forfeited our friendship. It is sad irony that it is you being among the persons I liked the most, today like me the least," he said, his voice faltering briefly.

"I am deeply sorry. I was wrong."