Courage and Kennedy

I listened to the smack-festive verbal sparring of The Jim Rome Show yesterday and a hockey chat broke out! (Rimshot.) More important, it was one of those serious and heart-building conversations that Rome loves to slide in among the banal star interviews, general jock-sniffing and one-up “takes”. Normally, a Rome interview with an athlete takes up 8 or 10 minutes of a 12-minute program segment, but with Sheldon Kennedy yesterday, he went on for four full segments, a commercial radio hour, and with good reason. (At his site, I think you can hear old shows. It started in hour two.)

Many Canadians, even non-hockey fans (Surprise! There are millions of ‘em…), know about Sheldon Kennedy. His book came out last spring in Canada, and maybe it’s just been published in the States. Certainly, the story is not so well-known there, but back in 1996, near the end of an eight-year NHL career, Kennedy was the public face of a prosecution of his former junior hockey coach, Graham James, for sexual abuse. Imagine: in the closed-mouth, macho world of pro sports, Kennedy openly said that he had been his coach’s sexual prey on hundreds of occasions. James was convicted, and went to jail for 18 months; unbelievably, he still coaches in Europe. (Working with young people? Don’t know. Shudder.) Kennedy shook the hockey world and became another Canadian hero in the mould of Terry Fox or Rick Hansen: the victim of a cruel fate who cannot be beaten down by it. He even rollerbladed across Canada to bring light to this dark subject, because “I always thought, when it was happening, that I was the only one, and I couldn’t do anything or tell anybody.”

Of course, the book was to be next, everybody wanted it, but Kennedy was a basket-case. Self-medication, despair and demons that would not go away nearly killed him, but he finally got straight and got ready. The book is called Why I Didn’t Say Anything: The Sheldon Kennedy Story. He spoke with Rome yesterday, not for the first time, and what a stirring thing it was. He’s a Canadian prairie farm boy, now 36 years old, who speaks as sincerely and feelingly as ever, but now more eloquently and with greater knowledge of the wider social fact of sexual abuse. It’s painful but ultimately inspiring to listen to him. His breaths are deep. The struggle he still endures, after all the interviews, to tell his story again is obvious. Beside the obvious poignancy of so much that he says, I was particularly moved by two things.

He’s a dad himself (he has a young daughter, I think), and one of his core activities in life is to beseech parents to “pay attention to your kids!” Spend time with them. Know who they know. Don’t turn them over to anybody else – hockey coach, drama teacher, Scout leader, anybody – without being sure of this person’s character, motivation, methods. I have four sons, and that’s a scary and challenging thing to hear from a voice like that.

I was also moved by a simpler thing. Sheldon Kennedy is now playing hockey again for fun with a Calgary Flames alumni team. It’s incredible, startling, to hear the wonder in his voice as he speaks of a long-blunted love for this game that he was so good at, but which was not always good to him. “I don’t know how I played in the NHL,” he says. (Talent, for one. Even in the midst of his junior hockey nightmare, he twice had 50-goal seasons, and scored over 40 one year between Detroit and its AHL farm team.) “I never felt this way about the game then. I wish I’d been able to play with the passion that I have now…” And for this brave man, that’s far from the greatest of his losses. It took him nearly ten years to heal enough to write this book. (With Rome, he thanked the work of AA and elsewhere, he has given great credit to Aboriginal friends, their sweat-lodges and their spiritual support.)

Rome was moved this day, and so were his listeners. It was the worst and the best of sport all in one radio hour. Wow. Wow. What a man is Sheldon Kennedy. (If only JR hadn’t had to follow this pathos with a bland football coach. When will Byron be able to play again? How did you feel about losing to the Texans? The show goes on, and must, I guess, but I got whiplash.)

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