Sheldon Kennedy, CM, OM, AOE, hockey player, activist (born 15 June 1969 in Brandon, MB). Sheldon Kennedy is a retired professional ice hockey player and a public advocate for child abuse prevention. He was part of the 1988 World Junior Championship-winning team and captained the 1989 Memorial Cup champion Swift Current Broncos before playing eight seasons in the National Hockey League (NHL). In 1996, he came forward with revelations of years of sexual abuse at the hands of his junior hockey coach. Named the Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year in 1997, Kennedy became a public speaker and activist. He is a member of the Order of Manitoba, the Alberta Order of Excellence and the Order of Canada. He has been inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and received the Order of Hockey in Canada.
Sheldon Kennedy was born in Brandon, Manitoba, and raised in the nearby town of Elkhorn. His family operated a dairy farm where Kennedy helped with milking cows when he wasn’t playing sports — baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter.
It wasn’t long before he was a standout hockey player. By the age of 13, he caught the eye of scout and coach Graham James, who had recruited Kennedy, along with fellow Manitoban and future NHLer Theoren Fleury. Kennedy’s junior hockey career began in the Manitoba Junior Hockey Leauge as a member of the Winnipeg South Blues, where James was a coach. In the 1985–86 season, Kennedy played right wing and amassed 75 points and 103 penalty minutes in 43 games. The following season, he was acquired via trade by the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League (WHL), where James served as head coach and general manager.
Bus Crash and Memorial Cup
On 30 December 1986, Kennedy and the Swift Current Broncos were en route to Regina along the Trans-Canada Highway when the team bus slipped on black ice and crashed. Four Broncos players were killed: Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff. Kennedy was among the survivors, along with future NHL star and Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic.
In 1988, Kennedy was a member of the gold medallist Canadian men’s team at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Moscow. He returned to the team the following year and scored seven points in seven games as Canada finished fourth.
Kennedy was named the Swift Current Broncos’ team captain in the 1988–89 season. He scored 58 goals in 51 games, leading the team to a first-place finish and an appearance in the 1989 Memorial Cup in Saskatoon. The Broncos reached the finals, facing the host team, the Saskatoon Blades, in front of a sellout crowd and national television audience. During the second period, Kennedy scored a goal to give the Broncos an early lead. The team went on to win the cup in overtime. After the Broncos secured the championship, coach Graham James was named the 1989 Man of the Year by the Hockey News.
Prior to his Memorial Cup-winning 1988–89 season, Kennedy was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the fourth round (80th overall) of the 1988 NHL entry draft. He made his NHL debut in the 1989–90 season and registered his first NHL point on 5 December 1989, assisting on a Gerard Gallant goal in the third period. Kennedy’s first NHL goal came on 10 February 1990 versus the Calgary Flames. As a rookie, Kennedy registered two goals and seven assists in 20 games. He spent 26 games that season with the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings, scoring 26 points.
After four seasons split between Detroit and Adirondack, Kennedy was traded to the Winnipeg Jets on 25 May 1994. However, he did not play for the team due to a lockout-shortened season. He continued his NHL career with the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. His professional hockey career came to an end following the 1998–99 season; he played 24 games for the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League and 13 games for German club EV Landshut.
Sexual Abuse Survivor
In the summer of 1996, Sheldon Kennedy approached the Calgary police department and revealed that during the entirety of his junior hockey career, he was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his coach, Graham James. The first incident took place in 1984, when Kennedy’s parents allowed him to spend a weekend at James’s home to plan his future hockey career. “The coach is so respected. Your parents send you away and say, ‘Do what he says,’” Kennedy told reporters. “At that age, you listen. That’s your first step if you want to play pro.”
Kennedy testified that James sexually assaulted him more than 350 times between 1984 and 1990. The abuse only ended once his professional career began. Based on Kennedy’s initial report, Calgary police estimated that between 25 and 100 minors had been victimized by James.
On 29 October 1996, the Calgary Sun, which had previously reported that police were investigating James, named Kennedy as the alleged victim. This prompted Kennedy to come forward and share his story publicly. On 22 November 1996, James was charged with two counts of sexual assault against Kennedy and another unnamed victim. On 2 January 1997, James pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. He was also banned for life from coaching by the Canadian Hockey Association (now Hockey Canada). The Hockey News revoked its Man of the Year award in 2013.
Kennedy suffered with alcohol and cocaine abuse and was enrolled in the NHL’s substance-abuse program. He told reporters that he considered suicide on several occasions. “I put up a shield,” Kennedy said in 1997. “I didn’t let anybody in. It’s a very lonely way to feel. You never feel normal. You know something is wrong but you don't know why.”
In 2010, after more allegations against James surfaced from three more players (Theoren Fleury, Todd Holt and Greg Gilhooly), James was charged and pled guilty again.
Kennedy went on to become a public speaker and advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse. He discussed his experiences in many interviews and media appearances, including on The Fifth Estate, W-5 and Oprah, among others. The Canadian Press named him Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year in 1997.
From May to November 1998, Kennedy in-line skated across Canada, raising awareness and $3 million for child abuse survivors and prevention programs, as well as for a retreat in Radium, BC, for child abuse victims. He cofounded Respect Group, an online abuse prevention training organization that has partnered with international bodies to take his message to a global audience. In 2013, Kennedy also cofounded the Calgary & Area Child Advocacy Centre, which advocates on behalf of and provides services for survivors of child abuse.
In 1999, a TV movie titled The Sheldon Kennedy Story aired on CTV. Kennedy’s memoir, Why I Didn’t Say Anything, was published in 2006. In 2012, the Calgary child advocacy centre was named the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre at a ceremony hosted by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (In 2018, Kennedy asked to have his name removed because he needed to focus on his own mental health.) The feature documentary Swift Current (2016) recounts Kennedy’s life, hockey career and advocacy work.
Honours and Awards
- All-Star Team, Memorial Cup (1989)
- Caring Award, Canadian Red Cross (2007)
- Scotiabank Humanitarian Award (2012)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Citizen of the Year, City of Calgary (2013)
- Member, Order of Canada (2014)
- Humanitarian Award, David Foster Foundation (2014)
- Lincoln Alexander Outstanding Leader Award, University of Guelph (2015)
- Order of Manitoba (2015)
- Alberta Order of Excellence (2016)
- Transforming Lives Award, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (2016)
- Inductee, Swift Current Broncos Hall of Fame (2016)
- Order of Hockey in Canada, Hockey Canada (2020)
- Inductee, Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame (2020)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of the Fraser Valley (2012)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Calgary (2015)
- Honorary Bachelor of Business Administration, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (2016)
- Honorary Bachelor of Child Studies and Child and Youth Care, Mount Royal University (2016)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Regina (2018)