LAVAL, Que. – Graham James, the disgraced former junior hockey coach who sexually abused several players under his watch more than two decades ago, was granted day parole Monday.
James, 62, appeared before the National Parole Board at a federal prison in Laval, Que., where the ruling was handed down after a four-hour hearing.
He is currently serving a seven-year sentence for sexually assaulting players he coached in the late 1980s and early ’90s with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.
James, who was seeking full parole, has been convicted of sexually assaulting six of his former players hundreds of times during that period.
Parole board member Suzanne Chartrand said James may have remorse, but lacks the necessary empathy. She noted that his victims continue to live with severe consequences of his actions.
“We think you need to increase your empathy,” Chartrand told him. “We cannot say it’s heartfelt, we cannot say it comes from deep inside.”
James pleaded guilty last June to more charges involving a player who described him as his tormentor and his demon. He received a two-year sentence on top of a five-year term from 2013 that James had almost finished serving on similar charges against former player Todd Holt and his cousin, retired Calgary Flames star Theo Fleury.
James was initially sentenced to two years in 2012 before a Manitoba appeals court increased that sentence to five years.
During Monday’s hearing, James appeared to question the number of sexual assaults he was accused of, saying the WHL teams he coached would not have been that successful with such a high number.
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“(But) I did enough things wrong and I offer no excuses,” he said, adding therapy during his first prison stint taught him how wrong he was. “Whatever excuses I had were taken out of me.”
James has faced sex charges three times involving players he coached.
He was sentenced to 42 months in federal prison after he pleaded guilty in 1997 to sex offences against Sheldon Kennedy and two others, serving about 18 months before being paroled.
Kennedy played for the Broncos at the time of the assaults and went on to play in the National Hockey League.
James sought and received a pardon for those offences in 2007.
Kennedy, who didn’t attend the parole hearing, said the publicity around the appearance continues at least to shine a light on the issue of the sexual abuse of children.
“Has he changed? I guess that’s the question. He said he’s trying and he can’t change what he’s attracted to,” he told The Canadian Press. “To me that’s not words of somebody who’s really committed to change or remorseful.”
Fleury tweeted his reaction on Monday to the parole decision.
James qualified for day parole last August and is eligible for full parole as of next month. He fell short on full parole, with the board ruling it was premature.
The risks associated with his day parole were deemed manageable, with the last charges dating back two decades and the board considering the risk of recidivism as low.
James is forbidden from interacting with or supervising anyone under 18 and is prohibited from having direct or indirect contact with his victims.
“I’ve apologized many times to my victims,” he said. “They’re not here, but I would apologize again for the harm that I caused, that I should have known better but didn’t.”
James told the board he will get his old job back working sales for a Montreal tech company. He will live in a halfway house.
He must also tell a case worker about any would-be or actual relationships and must take part in community service.
“From my perspective, I’m zero risk,” James said. “I do know in the interim I’m not going to be reoffending or putting myself at risk to reoffend.”
– With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary.