Sheldon Kennedy celebrated an anniversary of sorts on Wednesday, the same day that Graham James pleaded guilty to two charges of sexual assault, one of the victims being former NHL start Theo Fleury.
“Is that weird, or what?” Kennedy says over the phone from his home near Calgary. “Graham pleads guilty and that was my day for seven years.”
Yes, Kennedy has been sober for seven years. And, in recent years, he finally has come to be comfortable in his own skin.
As you no doubt are aware, it was Kennedy who 15 years ago blew the whistle on James, and a shocked public watched and listened to what was a grisly story of days, weeks, months and years of bullying and sexual assaults.
These days, Kennedy is rather popular with the media, especially major outlets south of the 49th parallel. While a lot of people in Canada are aware of who he is, the American public is just now being introduced to him.
When James went away — to jail, to Spain, to Mexico — the world wasn’t purged of such incidents. Unfortunately.
Kennedy and Fleury have been very much in demand by the American media since the Penn State scandal broke early last month.
But while Fleury has been most vocal in calling for James to be jailed after pleading guilty to assaulting him, Kennedy has moved past that stage. He is more concerned about today’s victims and the children of tomorrow.
It is impossible to understand what Kennedy went through 15 years ago when he stood up, all by himself, pointed a finger at James and accused his former coach and mentor of what may be the most heinous of all crimes.
Last week, after James entered his plea, Greg Gilhooly, who also has accused James of sexually assaulting him, was quoted as saying:
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the real hero here is Sheldon Kennedy, who came forward 15 years ago when none of us were coming forward.
“He had to take all of this on his own.”
There were other victims, of course, but they chose not to come forward. That left Kennedy to face the music and, in some instances, a disbelieving public, all by himself.
Kennedy was 27 years of age. He was a raging alcoholic. His hockey career was in tatters. He was alone. He was a mess.
Sheldon Kennedy, today a 42-year-old who lives with his daughter near Calgary, has come a long way since those blustery days and lonely nights.
These days, Kennedy is preparing to go to Washington.
“Pretty wild, eh?” Kennedy says, and he laughs as only he can laugh, somewhere between a giggle and a cackle. Whatever it is, it’s infectious.
There have, of course, been a lot of Kennedys in that neck of the woods, but none carrying the message this Kennedy does.
The former junior and professional hockey player whose nightmares drove him to drink and drugs is to appear Wednesday in front of the United States Congressional Subcommittee on Children and Families to, according to a release, “discuss the work that his organization, The Respect Group, is doing to combat child abuse and bullying.
“The subcommittee, chaired by Senator Barbara A. Mikulski from Maryland, is studying ‘Breaking the Silence on Child Abuse: Protection, Prevention, Intervention and Deterrence.’ ”
If you have seen Kennedy on TV lately, you can understand why American politicians want to hear from him. He looks good. There is no ranting. He knows what he is talking about, what his message is, and he stays on point.
“I try to carry a solution-based message instead of anger,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy is especially looking forward to getting together with Michelle Collins, who has the ear of U.S. President Barack Obama. Collins is vice-president of the Exploited Children Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She also is an assistant to President Obama.
Kennedy and Wayne McNeil are the co-founders of Respect Group Inc., which provides empowering on-line education for the prevention of abuse, bullying and harassment. Their group has spun off three programs — Respect in Sport, Respect in the Workplace and Respect in School — that are proving to be quite popular.
In recent times, Kennedy has been working hand-in-hand with the Canadian government and, as he says, “a lot more stronger laws are coming.” Increased penalties for sex crimes against children are part of the Safe Streets and Communities Act that was passed by the House of Commons last week and now is before the Senate.
And that is where a lot of Kennedy’s energy was directed before the Penn State scandal that hit the headlines on Nov. 4. In the last month, Kennedy has done numerous interviews with Canadian and American outlets, which is how he ended up with his date in Washington, D.C.
“They saw some media stuff we were doing on CNN and others during the Penn State stuff,” Kennedy says. “And I guess they liked the way I was talking about it.”
Kennedy says his message “isn’t negative.”
Rather, he says, he talks about “let’s do something about it. This could be a good thing. Here’s what you need to do.”
When James plea-bargained these most-recent charges, the accusations brought by Gilhooly were tossed aside. Gilhooly, now a corporate lawyer, is the person who discovered in 2010 and went to the media with the news that James had been pardoned in 2007.
After the latest charges were brought against James, Kennedy says he and Gilhooly “were in contact with the Crown on a weekly basis, understanding what was going on here.”
In fact, Kennedy says, he and Gilhooly “wanted Graham to get bail because if he didn’t get bail he would serve two-for-one days in a cushy cell.”
In other words, at sentencing time, James would have been given credit at a two-for-one rate for time already served.
“You have to take that risk,” Kennedy says. “Give him bail and if he does have to serve time it’s going to be hard time.”
James is to be sentenced in February in Winnipeg. Kennedy plans on being there. He wants to look James in the eye at least once.
Kennedy says he only has seen James once in the last 15 years. That was at “some kind of hearing” in Winnipeg while James was serving his original sentence.
“It was a long time ago,” Kennedy says.
He also acknowledges that James may not get jail this time. While the Crown will ask for jail time, Anne McGillivray, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, told The Canadian Press that because all of the charges James has faced are from before 1994, and because he has done jail time on some of those, the judge “could . . . consider the time that has passed since that period in the accused’s life and say, ‘Well, look, we’ve had 20 years … where we’ve had no similar conduct, so we’re not looking at specific deterrence and we’re not looking at rehabilitation, because that’s all done.’
“A lighter sentence could include no jail time. It could include a conditional sentence.”
Kennedy, however, will cross that bridge when he comes to it. He no longer frets about things like that. What will happen, he says, will happen.
In the meantime, there is work to do.
Mr. Kennedy, you see, is going to Washington.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)