TORONTO (AP) _ While scandal tainted other sports, Canadians clung to a belief that youth hockey remained pure.
Hundreds of thousands of youngsters play in fiercely competitive leagues nationwide, with many of the better athletes living away from home. Problems tended to be overlooked as youngsters _ and parents _ pursued dreams of someday making it to the pros.
That all changed with revelations that the admired coach of a championship team sexually abused his players for years. Now, parents, coaches and administrators are re-examining how kids should learn to play the game that is Canada’s pride and joy.
``We were somewhat naive to think this couldn’t happen to us,″ said Murray Costello, president of the Canadian Hockey Association. ``This has been a wake-up call.″
He was referring to the case of Graham James, sentenced Jan. 2 to 3 1/2 years in jail after pleading guilty to sexually abusing two of his players over a 12-year span starting in 1982. One of the victims, Boston Bruins forward Sheldon Kennedy, spoke out in painful detail about his ordeal.
Since James’ conviction, sexual abuse in hockey has been the dominant topic of public debate in Canada, and allegations of abuse on other teams have surfaced.
``All of Canadian society are victims of such an abuse of trust,″ Judge James Maloney said when he sentenced James. ``The shock of these events to the hockey public is devastating.″
Amateur hockey officials are hurriedly drafting plans requiring police background checks of coaches. Parents are questioning how their children have been treated. Canada’s most flamboyant hockey commentator, Don Cherry, declared on national TV that James should be ``drawn and quartered.″
The debate has focused attention on some long-standing practices in Canadian junior hockey, particularly in the upper echelon of leagues for the most talented teen-agers. Many of these players must live away from home while pursuing a shot at a professional career. Inevitably, their coach has immense sway over their future.
``I can see why it happened,″ Nick Boynton, 17, of the top-ranked Ottawa 67s, was quoted by the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper as saying. ``The coach holds all the cards if the kid will do anything to make it to the NHL.″
Kennedy said he didn’t tell his teammates about the abuse for fear they would conclude he was gay. And he didn’t tell his mother for fear she would pull him off his team, the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League.
Even at its best, junior hockey in Canada can be grueling, high-pressured and violent. Rookies often undergo harsh hazing, many players have trouble qualifying for college, and only about 5 percent of the players ever make it to the National Hockey League.
Sandra Kirby, a University of Winnipeg sociologist who is writing a book about sexual harassment in sports, says parents must become more active participants in their children’s athletic activities, especially in a supposedly macho sport like hockey.
``Children simply can’t do it for themselves,″ she said. ``They don’t know which way to turn. So if nobody speaks out on their behalf, nothing happens.″
Costello, of the Canadian Hockey Association, urged parents to be alert to possible problems. He said leagues should try to ensure that there is more than one adult with a team at all times.
``We need to send a message to predators _ if they’re looking for a safe haven in hockey they’re not going to find it,″ Costello said.
He conceded that mandatory background checks for coaches might deter some qualified people from volunteering. He also acknowledged that no background check would have kept James from getting his start as a coach because there was no previous criminal record.
In Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where the Broncos won a national title under James in 1993, one mother said she had to explain the case to her hockey-playing 9-year-old after he overheard his parents discussing it.
``His mouth just dropped,″ Michele Wiebe said. ``To him, a hockey coach is someone you look up to, not someone you have to watch out for.″