TORONTO — In 1982, when Sheldon Kennedy was 14 years old, he left his parents' farm in Elkhorn, Manitoba, and moved to Winnipeg to play hockey under the supervision of a junior league coach.
Like uncounted thousands of Canadian boys before him, young Sheldon knew that leaving home was the price for his dream - to one day play big-league professional hockey.
But last week, Mr. Kennedy, who now plays for the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins, revealed just how high that price really was. He told reporters he was sexually abused by his coach at least 300 times over 12 years. He told them there were other victims of the same coach, including some in the NHL.
"This is a huge blow to the country," says Stephen Brunt, a sports columnist at the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper. "It's hard to explain to Americans where the sport fits into our culture. It's not just entertainment. It runs a lot deeper than that."
Canadians, who feel as deeply about hockey as Americans do about baseball, have been shocked.
Kennedy's revelations, first made to police last year, helped lead to the Jan. 2 conviction on sexual-abuse charges of Graham James, previously a respected coach of the WHL'S Calgary Hitmen and, before that, the Swift Current (Saskatchewan) Broncos. Mr. James, who pleaded guilty, is now serving a 3-1/2 year sentence.
Rumors had circulated about James for years but were ignored. Kennedy made the prosecution possible, many say. He was credible for having nothing to gain and much to lose by stepping forward. "This is the hardest ... thing I have ever had to work and deal with in my life," he told the Toronto Star.
Decades of rumors
His revelations are having a profound effect on Canadian junior hockey's macho culture.
"I was shocked. I think it's fair to say the entire hockey community was shocked" over the revelations about James, says Dev Dley, president of the WHL, in a telephone interview from Calgary.
But others suggest that junior hockey officials should not have been so surprised, given a decade of rumors of abuse in the WHL. Some observers say player complaints were often brushed aside in the pursuit of winning. James had been considered a highly successful coach. "Junior hockey in Canada is a business and a large number of its employees are still children, vulnerable and living far from home," a Globe and Mail editorial said. "Maybe we should stop being surprised."
The Canadian Hockey League, known as the "junior league," is an umbrella organization for three regional leagues (including the WHL) with 49 teams and about 1,300 players under age 19.
The CHL players are the cream skimmed from more than 500,000 young players who begin organized hockey as early as age six. By contrast, the United States, with a population 10 times larger than Canada, has about 375,000 young players.
Canadian Hockey League officials brag that the CHL produces 2 out of every 3 NHL players. It is a rigorous system that drafts youths under age 18 to play on teams in cities far from home. They live with host families.
But from the time they make the move, it is the coach who, as Kennedy says, is "the door" that will swing open or shut on their hockey dream.
"The coach has nearly absolute power to mold and shape a young player," says Sandra Kirby, a professor of sociology at the University of Winnipeg. Professor Kirby, a former Olympic rower, has studied the sexual abuse of Canadian athletes in many sports, including hockey.
"Usually the system works, and the coach makes good judgments," she says. "But when a coach has sexual motives, the athlete is completely unprotected. He or she is forced into accepting the coach's influence and abuse or has to get off the road to success."
Junior hockey in Canada puts great power over young players in the hands of coaches and volunteers. And parents often know little about the people running their sons' lives. This problem is compounded for young boys when the last words ringing in their ears from parents as they walk out the door is "do whatever the coach tells you," Kirby says.
What Canada is awakening to is that sexual abuse of children, a global societal ill, extends to sports - including hockey, Kirby says. Her research, released at a conference last summer prior to the Atlanta Olympics, showed that more than 50 of the 266 athletes surveyed - all of whom were competing for Canada - had had sexual intercourse with a coach or someone in authority. Some said they had been forced. One in 5 was under age 16 when the act occurred. More than 90 percent of the cases involved female athletes.
Parental involvement is crucial
Officials in Australia, the US, Britain, Germany, and Norway now are planning surveys similar to Kirby's.
For Canadians to accept that hockey - long called "Canada's true religion" - is vulnerable is hard. "This is our essence, everything that we are, so that when it happens to our teams, it happens to us," says Roy MacGregor, a hockey coach and sports columnist for the Ottawa Citizen. "Canadians have a very sentimental view of hockey."
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police would henceforth screen all coaches and volunteers for criminal convictions. Anyone with a record of abuse or related crimes would be excluded from the league, they said.
USA Hockey, the governing body for American hockey, began promoting the background checks to its affiliated leagues in 1994. So far, USA Hockey affiliates in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Illinois have adopted the policy. In Massachusetts, where 30,000 children play in 120 town programs, background checks in 1994 into 9,000 coaches and volunteers resulted in nine or 10 individuals being excluded from participating, officials say.
Both USA Hockey and CHL officials concede, however, that such precautions would not have identified James, who had no prior criminal record. The only solution is for parents to be vigilant about really knowing who their children are with.
Canadians have "such faith in hockey that we believed it had a purity that cast its spell over everything and everyone," Mr. MacGregor says. "But now we can see it's really incumbent on the parents."