Warning: This story references graphic details of child sexual abuse in the 13th paragraph.
TORONTO — At every stage of his life, Greg Gilhooly appeared to have it made. He was a star goaltender growing up in Winnipeg, a model student whose record of straight A’s got him a scholarship to Princeton. He balanced hockey and law school at the University of Toronto, then crisscrossed the world as a corporate lawyer, brokering multimillion-dollar deals for Canada’s biggest media company.
No one knew of the war he waged with himself all the while. As a teenager he dropped a dumbbell on his chest and tore his toenails off his skin to distract from a worse pain, the thoughts in his head. He stopped working out and starting binging and purging junk food to force his body to look unattractive. He made plans to jump to his death from the roof of his office building. Ten years ago he walked alone into the woods on a quiet summer night, climbed onto the guardrail of a bridge and teetered there for hours, staring into the sky until the desire to live finally beckoned him back.
Gilhooly says he was one of the first minor hockey players victimized by Graham James, the disgraced former coach convicted of hundreds of incidents of child sexual assault. In 1979, before James met and abused Sheldon Kennedy and Theo Fleury — the NHL players whose disclosures of James’ villainy eventually sent him to prison — he began to arrange private training sessions with Gilhooly, then 14 years old, under the guise of developing him as a goalie. Those sessions soon turned predatory.
The abuse and lasting trauma James inflicted on Gilhooly and other boys isn’t a hockey story, per se. But it was his status as a respected coach that gave him access to impressionable young players. And it was hockey, Gilhooly writes in I Am Nobody, a new memoir of his ordeal, that James stole from him at the same time he killed his soul.
“Once Graham got me, I hated hockey. It was the last thing I wanted to do,” Gilhooly said in an interview this week. “You can’t be an athlete when you don’t love the sport, when you don’t want to give your best to the sport. And in my mind, the only thing that happened to me when I truly got in shape and was a top-level athlete was I became a target for him, so I was going to do everything to take myself out of that loop.
“But I loved hockey when I was a kid,” he said. “Loved it.”
In the eye of the law, James’ debt to Canadian society is nearly settled. Sentenced to spend 11 years in prison as part of four separate guilty pleas, he was paroled in 2016 and will be free without conditions next year. The National Parole Board even pardoned him after his first two convictions in 2007. Gilhooly discovered and divulged the pardon to The Canadian Press three years later, shortly before he told his story for the first time in a formal statement to the Winnipeg police.
That story was never heard in court; the Crown decided to drop its pursuit of Gilhooly’s allegations when James agreed to plead guilty to sexually abusing Fleury and another player he’d coached as a junior, Todd Holt. The deal ensured James would return to prison without the need for a lengthy trial. But it also meant Gilhooly would never officially be counted as one of his victims.
Instead, Gilhooly pursued justice on his own. He permitted the Crown to name him publicly as the victim whose charges were stayed. And he started writing I Am Nobody in 2012, when a Manitoba judge sentenced James to two years — later upped to five on appeal and seven when another victim came forward — for abusing Fleury and Holt.
“I didn’t want Graham to have another win over me,” he said.
Early in I Am Nobody, Gilhooly details how he met James in 1979, when James was coaching a team of slightly older boys in Winnipeg. James, he writes, capitalized on Gilhooly’s distant relationships with his parents by positioning himself as a mentor, someone who could help him achieve his goal of playing college hockey in the United States. He ran Gilhooly through workouts to the point of exhaustion before asking to massage his feet, explaining that athletes need strong feet to support the power their body generates. The foot rubs, he writes, were James’ gateway to heinous sexual acts.
Gilhooly doesn’t refrain from sharing the horrifying particulars of James’ abuse. In the law and in daily life, the deliberately broad term “sexual assault” is often used to protect victims, but he believes it obfuscates the toll of such crimes, the effects of which can tail a victim forever.
In his account of the first time he was abused, Gilhooly says James masturbated him, forced his penis into the boy’s mouth, ejaculated on Gilhooly’s feet and shins. That kind of abuse continued for three years, from the time Gilhooly was 15 until he turned 18 and left for Princeton in 1982.
At the coach’s insistence, he and Gilhooly always met in private. James would admonish Gilhooly to keep the abuse secret, lest anyone think the boy was gay — a label that triggered fears of being ostracized within hockey at the time.
James’ abuse, Gilhooly says, turned him into “nobody at all.” It stripped him of his self-esteem. It made him question his identity and his sexuality. It set him on a decades-long course of self-sabotage in which he’d do anything to torpedo the athletic and academic success his natural talents prescribed for him.
“I didn’t trust myself to understand who I was because I didn’t understand how I let this happen to me,” Gilhooly said. “If you’ve ever seen pictures of Graham or seen clips of him, he was a dumpy, schlubby, short, pudgy, unathletic guy who a person like me (Gilhooly is six-foot-seven) could have taken out with one punch.”
It took decades of distance and years of therapy for Gilhooly to grasp that he wasn’t at fault, to understand he was manipulated into seeing James as a lonely man in search of affection. He calls James a “Rhodes Scholar of sexual predators” and refers to his dark “genius”: James immersed himself in the lives of children he knew would keep silent.
Gilhooly isn’t a criminal lawyer, but his legal training is a defining feature of his personal story. He devotes one of the last chapters of I Am Nobody to his hard-won recovery — in between a point-by-point challenge of the defence James’ lawyer presented at the 2012 sentencing hearing and a breakdown of recommendations he has for the Canadian legal system.
Sexual abuse victims should be given a greater voice in the legal process, Gilhooly said, so that the consequences of the offence are properly conveyed. He thinks Canadian law over-incarcerates for many crimes but isn’t harsh enough on sexual predators. Where the American system handed Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar sentences that will keep them imprisoned for life, he says lenient precedent got James off easy.
Any changes to the law will likely be spurred by progress in society, Gilhooly said. He thinks people are becoming more aware of the seriousness of sexual assault, and that if more of those people go on to work as judges or lawyers, the system will adjust over time. He says his story shows how victims can develop crippling, enduring mental health issues that can’t be cured simply by choosing to “get over” them.
The abuse Gilhooly suffered arose decades ago in hockey, but he says it could happen again, and anywhere.
Researchers have estimated that two per cent to eight per cent of minor-aged athletes are sexually abused, and that the perpetrator is almost always a coach, teacher or instructor. Sandusky was a high-profile football coach at Penn State with access to children through a charity, Nassar a doctor to athletes through jobs with Michigan State and USA Gymnastics. Last month, a British judge called former youth soccer coach Barry Bennell “the devil incarnate” for sexually abusing 12 boys who’d played for him through the years. The Guardian reported that 86 other players have come forward with allegations.
Decades ago, Gilhooly writes in I Am Nobody, James’ abuse led him to hurt himself, to stop exercising and to blow off studying. They were passive-aggressive cries for help that went unheeded by any authority figure. For most readers, it may be the book’s most practical lesson: if you notice a child acting abnormally — hockey player or otherwise — make a point of asking why.
“If people can be reminded that no child is safe, that every child has a vulnerability at a certain level, that anyone in the community is capable of perpetrating the crime, that heightened awareness can’t be a bad thing,” Gilhooly said.
“The vast majority of adults involved with youth, be it in school or sports or whatever, are there for the right reasons, and these abusers are outliers. But at the same time, these abusers are there, and there are monsters amongst us, and to the extent that we can turn our mind to good, common-sensical steps to protect and at least inquire as to what’s going on, it’s a good thing.”
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