Sexual Abuse Scandal Rocks Youth Hockey
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.