WINNIPEG – One of his victims rejoiced online Friday when the Manitoba Court of Appeal more than doubled the sentence of child molester and former junior hockey coach Graham James.
“This is a great day for all survivors,” retired NHL star Theo Fleury, who played for the Calgary Flames, said in a post on Twitter after the court increased James’s sentence to five years from two.
It was largely because of Fleury that James faced a second set of charges for molesting junior hockey players under his care. He had been convicted in 1997 for sex assaults against three others, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy.
Kennedy also posted an online comment after the court announced its decision.
“Everyday together we try to create a better place for our kids. I am confident the trauma our kids suffer from abuse is becoming visible,” he said on Twitter.
Appeal courts don’t often interfere with sentences.
“An appellate court should not intervene in either the duration of the sentence, or the type of sentence ordered, absent an error in principle or unless the sentence is demonstrably unfit,” Justice Alan MacInnes wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.
In this case, he said, trial judge Catherine Carlson did make a mistake during James’s sentencing in Winnipeg last year.
“The decision of the judge was thorough and thoughtful. Notwithstanding, I have concluded that she erred.”
James was a rising star among junior hockey coaches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He had been named man of the year by The Hockey News in 1989 after coaching the Swift Current Broncos to a WHL championship and Memorial Cup.
He became general manager and coach of the Calgary Hitmen in 1994. At that point, he’d already been molesting players under his guidance for years.
He started with Fleury in 1984 and selected Fleury’s cousin Todd Holt for similar treatment in 1989. James pleaded guilty to molesting both men when they were teenagers.
He was given two years, but the Crown argued in its appeal that Carlson had erred in her application of sentencing principles and put too much weight on the 3 1/2 years he received in 1997 for abusing other young players, including Kennedy.
MacInnes said James does deserve some credit for turning his life around since his original conviction.
“During the 14 years between the completion of his 1997 sentence and the date of his sentence under appeal, the accused, through therapy and his own efforts, has been able to control and redirect his sexual preference away from minors,” the judge wrote.
“The accused has become a rehabilitated and contributing member of society.”
If not for that, he would have faced a sentence of eight years, MacInnes said.
“In my view, an eight-year sentence without adjustment for totality would, in all of the circumstances, be a crushing sentence not in keeping with the accused’s record and prospects,” the judge wrote.