The pride of Elkhorn, Man., Sheldon Kennedy could not have been more humbled, or sincere, when he spoke with CJOB Sports Show host Christian Aumell on Wednesday, just a few hours after it was officially announced he is going into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame as both an athlete and builder.
Joining the former NHLer in the class of 2020 as athletes are: kickboxer and Muay Thai specialist Baxter Humby, former U of W Wesmen Volleyball star Ruth Klassen, Ralph Lyndon who excelled in a number of sports, Jennifer Saunders who retired with a record 24 national titles in racquetball, and two-time Brier curling champ Ed Werenich.
Marilyn Fraser of Athletics and Paul Robson for his contribution in multiple sports are, along with Kennedy, the newest inductees into the Builder’s wing. And getting the nod in the Team category is the 1996-97 U of M Bisons Women’s Basketball squad who won back to back Canadian University titles.
Kennedy played 310 NHL games for Detroit, Calgary and Boston following an outstanding junior career with Swift Current that saw him help Canada win a World Junior Gold medal in 1988, and then the Broncos capture the Memorial Cup the following year.
“I remember winning the World Junior. We were in Moscow and had quite the team. It was still a communist country, and what an experience,” Kennedy recalled. “And then coming back and being able to win the Memorial Cup in ’89. We won that Cup for the four guys that we lost in the bus accident in 1986. Trent (Kresse), Scott (Kruger), Brent (Ruff) and Chris (Mantyka). That’s who we were playing for.”
Kennedy says what he also remembers vividly about that time was thinking he would finally escape Broncos Coach and GM Graham James. It would be some seven years later in 1996 that Kennedy would shock the hockey world by testifying that he had been the victim of repeated sexual abuse by James, who was eventually sentenced to 3 and a half years in prison in 1997.
“It’s nice to be recognized as an athlete because I was never really proud of what I accomplished athletically because I was always shameful of not giving my best,” said Kennedy. “What I know now is I gave my best under the circumstances that I was in. Being able to accept the fact that if I wasn’t an athlete, I probably wouldn’t have been able to be the builder that I’ve become over the last 25 years.”
Kennedy has been front-and-center with programs like Safe Sport and Respect in Sports. And he feels the sport, society, country and beyond have come a long way.
“We started out telling Sheldon’s story and now we tell a story about abuse with some knowledge. And we talk about the impact and how important it is that we do the right thing around these issues. And if I look at Sport Manitoba — what have we learned? We’ve learned our best defense is empowering the bystander. Focus on the 98 per cent of really good people, give them the tools to be better and make them more confident around these issues. Ask them questions if their gut is telling them something isn’t right.”
Kennedy credits his home province for being a national leader when it comes to making it mandatory for all coaches to be trained in Respect For Sport. “To me that was huge. That was a big decision back then — 14 years ago I think. There are organizations still, that are just making it mandatory now. That’s something we at Respect Group will always be grateful for Sport Manitoba — for that early leadership.”
Kennedy is also of the opinion that too many good coaches are taking an unfair share of the criticism and finger-pointing for the actions of just a few. But he says where the education comes in is realizing what an important role those coaches and mentors have.
“There’s probably more kids coming into a team or a sport that have outside issues and look to the coach as maybe one of the only trusted adults in their life. “
When Kennedy talks about his childhood and teenage years, it’s hard not to think how things might have turned out had he been given the opportunity to be guided by someone other than James. “You always dream about scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7 when you’re cruising down the lane in the dark with your tennis ball at -20. And I was no different. The sad part of my journey was that love of the game was stolen and I think –as the athlete part of it– that’s the shame and guilt that I carried. I really self-destructed. I had my struggles with what was happening with me and I knew it shaped my career.”
And that brings us back to Wednesday’s induction announcement, and the special honour of being recognized for what he was, and where he came from to become what he is.
“I think it reflects hope. It doesn’t matter where you’re at because I was one of the guys where front-page articles were about Sheldon being arrested for this or Sheldon getting in trouble for that. Sheldon in a psych ward. So when people see Sheldon Kennedy being inducted into a Hall of Fame I think it gives people that light that they sometimes need. It says, ‘yeah, we can get through what we’re stuck in,’ and ‘it’s never too late to get going here again and start winning again in life.’ That’s what I think it represents and that’s what I’m proud of most.”