SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. – Former NHL hockey player Sheldon Kennedy says it’s like a cloud has been lifted over the Saskatchewan city where he was sexually abused by his junior hockey coach.
Kennedy was on hand Friday as nearly 600 people packed into a theatre for the screening of a documentary entitled “Swift Current,” which looks at the repercussions of child sexual abuse, including Kennedy’s.
The former hockey player revealed 20 years ago that he was abused by Graham James, his coach with the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos. Kennedy then went on to battle alcohol and drug problems as he struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
“I carried that shame and guilt for many years. I still carry the scars of what happened to me, but I’ve got positive tools to help me so it doesn’t control my life anymore,” said Kennedy.
“This is all about hope, it’s about hope,and the film is about hope. You can’t get to hope until you get to acceptance and I think that the letter and what’s gone on is acceptance and we’re moving to the hope.”
Kennedy was referring to an apology letter penned recently by Swift Current Mayor Jerrod Schafer.
Schafer also launched a program for community organizations that will require not only criminal background checks for adults working with children, but training on how to prevent bullying and abuse. Officials say it’s the first time such a program has been applied by a community in Canada, not just a sporting group.
Kennedy said there’s an energy in the city now where people realize it’s OK to talk about what happened, as well as a sense of peace and relief that comes with acceptance.
“Well, it’s a turning point in, I believe, a long saga of a black cloud over Swift Current and that relationship between Sheldon and Swift Current,” said Kennedy.
Todd Holt, who was also abused by James, agreed that the atmosphere is different in Swift Current.
“Graham James put a black eye on this community with what he did off ice and the accomplishments on the ice that the boys did, that the boys worked so hard to do, were overshadowed by it,” Holt said at the screening.
“Today, to be able to turn that page and to start looking at the world through different eyes, is going to be a big eye opening for the entire city I think.”
Kennedy said groups such as Hockey Canada have similar training, but rules are lacking for organizations that fall under the city’s umbrella, such as private coaches and home daycares.
He said it’s about trying to create confidence for somebody to ask questions when they have “a gut feeling that something’s not right.”
“That is our best defence because they’re (abusers) able to operate on silence,” said Kennedy, who has become an advocate for victims.
“The only way we eliminate fear … is by education and training.”
This weekend, the Western Hockey League will present also Kennedy with the WHL Alumni Achievement Award for the leadership role he has played in the awareness and prevention of child abuse.