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Vigilance, awareness only protection against hockey's predators

Theo Fleury has often talked openly about being abused by Graham James as a junior player. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

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Theo Fleury has often talked openly about being abused by Graham James as a junior player. (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

When Graham James is sentenced to prison for his heinous crimes, there will be no shortage of people arguing the penalty he got was too light, no matter what the punishment winds up being. It is impossible to argue they’re wrong. There is no sensible form of adequate payback for the devastation done by child abuse, nothing that can restore the feeling of wholeness and peace cruelly ripped away from the innocent by loathsome predators.

That said, I hope the prevailing message in the wake of James’ jail term isn’t one that bemoans a too-soft Canadian justice system. That’s a for-another-day debate extending far beyond the boundaries of athletic endeavors. No, the best way we can serve James’ victims – including former NHLers Theo Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy – is for all of us to pledge to work as diligently as possible to ensure hockey never again is stained by the unforgivable actions and warped minds of child abusers.

Thanks to the admirable and continuing efforts of Kennedy, Fleury and others inside and outside the game, society and the sport have made good strides in that regard. Amateur hockey’s governing bodies are stricter in vetting coaches and workers’ backgrounds. The publicity given to James’ sickening deeds, as well as the more recent, equally horrific child sex crimes scandal at Penn State University, has kept the issue front and center. But everyone knows how the modern-day media memory hole works. Once James is sentenced and some of us have fantasized about the barbaric ways in which we’d like to deliver vengeance to him, the news cycle will shift to another topic and the natural inclination will be to focus on the moment’s next pressing news story.

We cannot allow that to happen with this problem. We cannot trick ourselves into the comfort that comes with feeling enough has been done, or that someone else is guarding the gates we build around our most vulnerable loved ones. We owe it to our kids to push harder than ever to give them a secure and happy upbringing at home and in any recreational pursuit.

Judging by the odious taunts Fleury has to endure on Twitter from (usually) anonymous, homophobic cretins any time he talks about sexual abuse and what it is to be a public, vocal survivor of a sex crime, it’s clear we’ve still got a long ways to go in acknowledging the monstrous problem. When people snidely suggest Fleury somehow was to blame for maintaining a business relationship with James long after he had stopped molesting the former Flames, Avs, Rangers and Blackhawks star, it casts light on the unfortunately long, bumpy road that lies ahead for those seeking empathy and understanding for abuse victims.

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But the sheer ignorance of some shouldn’t be deterrent enough for the rest of us to back down. Not if we don’t want hockey to be dragged through the mud again. Not if we’re being realistic in terms of the likelihood there are pedophiles out there, right now, attempting to weasel their way into the lives of young kids, from both broken and non-broken homes, at rinks and parks and playgrounds everywhere.

If the hockey world is going to be as protective of its children as possible, it must take the cynical, cautious, always-attentive route when it comes to child abuse. We cannot turn our children over to coaches fully and wholly simply because they’re chasing their dream. We have to demand accountability and ask uncomfortable questions when we see suspicious activity. That doesn’t mean we have to start levelling wild and consequential accusations on parents or adults who engage in odd behavior, but we cannot return to the days where we turned a blind eye to it while saying it was none of our business, or someone with more authority would look after the problem.

It is our business. It is our problem. It’s everyone’s business and everyone’s problem, but if we want hockey to be as blemish-free as possible, we have to make it a priority inside every arena.

Locking up the repulsive and utterly pathetic Graham James for minutes, months or a millennium is no guarantee we won’t have another ogre weighing down our collective conscience and leaving more broken spirits in his wake. The only way we can honestly say we did our best to protect our youth is to always support the injured and continuously be vigilant in order to drive away the snakes each and every time they try slithering into the daylight.

Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His Power Rankings appear Mondays, his column appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature Fridays.

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