When Tom Thompson showed up at our Toronto office a couple of weeks ago declaring he had a present for me, I had no idea what it could possibly be. When I opened the box and examined the contents, I was flabbergasted. In a situation such as this one, it’s impossible to say you’re happy. Relieved and satisfied would probably be better descriptions.
That’s because in that box was a plaque. It was awarded to Graham James to commemorate his designation as The Hockey News’ 1989 Man of the Year. It was given to him at our annual awards luncheon that June and after accepting the accolades for his stance against violence and for leading the Swift Current Broncos to the Memorial Cup less than two-and-a-half years after a bus crash took the lives of four players, Graham James later that night sexually assaulted Sheldon Kennedy in a hotel room paid for by The Hockey News.
Don’t get us wrong. We don’t feel as though we have any stain on our hands just because we gave Graham James an award. After all, we had no idea how James was capitalizing on the dreams of vulnerable teenage boys by repeatedly sexually assaulting them.
Now that James has been sentenced to two years in prison for his repeated sexual assaults on Theoren Fleury and Todd Holt, there’s probably nobody who can say he or she feels at ease. To know that James will be incarcerated for another two years will undoubtedly give some people immense pleasure, while others will be outraged that his sentence wasn’t much, much longer. And given that James received a pardon for his first sexual abuse conviction, we can certainly sympathize with those who feel James wasn’t dealt with nearly harshly enough considering the damage he did to at least four young men.
James did some despicable things and he deserves to be punished as severely as the justice system deems reasonable, probably more, but we do take some comfort in the fact that James saw fit to do the right thing. Shortly after James pleaded guilty to the sexual assaults involving Fleury and Holt, I wrote a column for The Hockey News stripping James of his Man of the Year award and requesting he return his plaque to our offices. That became a reality when James read the column and reached out to Thompson, a longtime scout currently employed by the New York Rangers, and asked him to pass the plaque along to us.
We point this out because there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to see photographs in the media coverage of James holding up his award in 1989. That picture almost always invariably surfaces when James finds himself in the news. We want to make sure people know James has been deemed unworthy to continue to hold that award.
As I said at the time, we’re under no illusions that this in any way makes things right. In fact, it feels a little like a hollow gesture, largely because we should have done it 15 years ago when James pleaded guilty to 350 counts of sexual assault against Kennedy and another player. But we did not and there is nothing we can do about that, except to try to do our part to right a wrong. Even if it is too little, too late, at least it’s something. A token gesture? Perhaps. But we don’t view it that way. And we hope David Poile, Steve Larmer and Dr. Tom Pashby, who were also recipients of the award, don’t view it that way either. At the very least, we owed it to those three men and their good names.
This is not meant to give James any sort of praise, but the fact remains he could have insisted the award, based on the reason it was given to him, was merited and refused to return it to us, even after we stripped him of the designation. He did not. Not once has he ever fought the charges that have been leveled against him or tried to spin the situation into one that put any shred of culpability on his victims. That does not make Graham James a good person. He remains an awful character, the most notorious pedophile in the history of the game, a person who betrayed the players who trusted him most and all those around them to feed his own desires.
But if there’s one morsel of positivity we can take from all of this, perhaps it’s that people even that evil and depraved are sometimes capable of doing the right thing.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.