The life and destructive legacy of Graham James
A young hockey player Graham James recruited to play for the Winnipeg Warriors in the 1980s was placed in the home of a convicted sex offender as his billet.
"I think it is shocking that the team would billet me with a convicted pedophile, chosen by another pedophile and that the team did not believe me when I complained," the unnamed player said in an affidavit filed last week in Ontario Superior Court.
The affidavit is part of a lawsuit former junior hockey players have filed against the Canadian Hockey League. The lawsuit alleges underaged players were repeatedly subjected to sexual, physical and mental abuse for decades through a toxic environment of hazing and harassment created by the league, its teams and their executives. The allegations have not been proven in court.
Although not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, James was head scout and assistant coach of the 1983-84 Winnipeg Warriors. The team was relocated to Moose Jaw the following season, with James taking over as head coach. It would be more than a decade later before he was convicted of sexually assaulting Sheldon Kennedy and another unnamed player.
The revelation in his affidavit raises new questions about the pipeline of hockey players connected to James who would face unwanted sexual advances — and why no one took action when alarms were sounded.
The player’s affidavit also details a litany of hazing horrors he experienced during the Warriors’ final season in the city; alleging the coaches and team staff were aware of some of the rookie initiations carried out by veteran players.
In the fall of 1983, the player had decided to pursue a U.S. college scholarship after learning he wouldn’t be getting much playing time with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers. But he agreed to a trade to Winnipeg when James began to recruit him.
"I agreed to go play in Winnipeg largely based on how special Graham James made me feel during his recruiting trips...," he says in his affidavit. "He came specifically to watch me play. He endeared himself to me. I had never met a coach who was so interested in me as a hockey player and a person."
“I agreed to go play in Winnipeg largely based on how special Graham James made me feel during his recruiting trips... He came specifically to watch me play. He endeared himself to me. I had never met a coach who was so interested in me as a hockey player and a person.”
After the player initially stayed in a hotel, James drove him to a large house in St. James belonging to Edmund Oliverio, saying the teen was "very lucky to be placed in the home of this billet."
"When we arrived, I got the impression that they knew each other well," the player said.
Oliverio was convicted in March 1980 of seven counts of gross indecency and one count of buggery in connection with homosexual relations he had with six teenage boys in 1978. The judge at the time said the boys, aged 14 to 16, consented and "voluntarily took part in the prohibited activity." Oliverio died in 2006.
That first week, Oliverio took the player to various bars and restaurants where they would drink heavily, the player states. The player went to bed extremely drunk one night only to awake with Oliverio in his bed.
"I was freaked out. I yelled at him, pushed him out and threatened him with violence if he ever did anything like it again," the player says in his affidavit.
Undeterred, Oliverio became more brazen in his sexual advances. The player says he became so terrified that he started sleeping with a dresser blocking his bedroom door.
Initially he was too afraid to speak up because he feared it would impact his NHL draft prospects, but finally pleaded with Tom Thompson, the team's general manager at the time, to be placed with another billet.
Instead, he was threatened.
"He said I could get in big trouble for bad-mouthing such a prominent member of Winnipeg society. He told me I should be grateful to have such a billet and that I should keep my mouth shut, or I might lose my place on the team."
The player says he reported Oliverio’s advances to the team two more times before he moved into another billet’s home.
"I left hockey that year and went home. I went from being a top 100 prospect to completely out of hockey in less than one year. Just months earlier I loved hockey, and now I hated it."
Thompson, who was general manager of the Warriors from 1981 to 1984, says he remembers Oliverio as a "balding man" and an "articulate speaker who had a bit of a speech impediment." He also believes Oliverio was a "clerk at the Privy Council or something in Manitoba."
But Thompson refutes the sequences of events detailed in the player's sworn affidavit.
After being read aloud the entirety of the player's claim, Thompson said he was sorry for the player but that he had no idea that was going on. He also denies the player ever coming to him to say he was being sexually pursued by Oliverio, who he says he only met once.
"Absolutely refute that," Thompson says. "That never happened."
“He said I could get in big trouble for bad–mouthing such a prominent member of Winnipeg society. He told me I should be grateful to have such a billet and that I should keep my mouth shut, or I might lose my place on the team.”
The former Warriors GM says an incident did occur that led to Oliverio being dismissed as a billet parent for the club. But Thompson says the player, who asked to meet him in his office, was complaining about Oliverio, who was gay, for bringing home a male companion on New Year's Eve. The issue, Thompson says, was the player could hear sexual noises coming from his bedroom.
"We changed his billet immediately," Thompson says, contradicting the player's account that he was forced to find his own housing, moving in with a teammate's billet.
"I was petrified of the veteran players while I was at the rink, but when I went home, it was even worse," the player says.
The horrific hazing rituals the player outlines have been entrenched in hockey culture for decades; acts of cruelty on rookies passed along each season to the next group of veteran players.
He was stripped naked, with his arms spread out and taped to hockey sticks, as if "he was being crucified." A rope, with a bucket tied at one end was looped over a rack, and tied to his penis and players then tossed pucks one by one into the bucket, leaving him in unbearable pain.
The older players then shaved his genital area with a dull razor, leaving cuts, which they then covered in heat ointment, he says. They then penetrated his anus with a hockey stick covered with the heat ointment.
“I left hockey that year and went home. I went from being a top 100 prospect to completely out of hockey in less than one year. Just months earlier I loved hockey, and now I hated it.”
He also endured "hot box" treatment on road trips, where rookies were stripped naked and jammed into a pitch-black bus bathroom for hours. They could leave after they untied their clothes.
"I have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of my time in the WHL," the former player says in his affidavit.
"I spent years keeping my stories to myself. I drank heavily for years and I was promiscuous. I believe I was trying to escape the traumas I suffered while playing hockey in the WHL. I am still struggling with these events."
A former player with the Warriors cringes when told of his old teammate's story. He remembers the player fondly.
He says because he joined the Warriors part way through the season he missed the time frame for when veteran players usually initiate the rookies with the kind of abuse his teammate was talking about. The player, who asked to remain anonymous, isn't surprised it happened; he witnessed the same behaviour first-hand years before, while playing in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
As for the antics that took place on the team bus, he says he was present for that but purposely distanced himself from the abusive behaviour, always taking a seat near the front of the vehicle. He says anyone on the bus — which would have included head coach Bruce Southern, James, equipment manager Craig Heisinger and sometimes Thompson — would have seen what was happening.
Heisinger, currently the assistant general manager and director of hockey operations for the Winnipeg Jets, denied an interview request through the NHL club. Southern, who later was hired by Heisinger to scout for the Manitoba Moose, didn't respond to phone and email requests for comment.
Thompson denied any hazing occurred with the Warriors, though he admits hardly spent any time in the locker room. He says Southern and Heisinger — "the two guys that ran the room" — were not the type of people to condone such behaviour.
The victim did not want to speak further to the claims, preferring to let the courts deal with it, said James Sayce, a partner with Toronto's Koskie Minksy LLP, and one of the lawyers representing the two plaintiffs.
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.