2020 oohic sheldon kennedy

Driven by purpose

Sheldon Kennedy is a World Juniors gold medallist and Memorial Cup champion, but his legacy will be all he has accomplished off the ice to make the game a better place

Chris Jurewicz
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June 12, 2021
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A hockey player’s legacy is often measured in goals and assists, scoring titles, trophies and championships.

Sheldon Kennedy measures up just fine there. He won World Juniors gold with Canada in 1988, played at the event once more in 1989, and was named to the tournament all-star team at the ’89 Memorial Cup when he helped the Swift Current Broncos to the national championship. Kennedy also played more than 300 games in the National Hockey League with Detroit, Boston and Calgary.

But Kennedy’s real legacy goes far beyond what he did on the ice.

It’s measured in stats like 1.6 million, the number of people who have taken Respect in Sport and Respect in the Workplace online training. Or 70, the number of sport organizations in Canada that have made Respect training mandatory for all volunteers.

Kennedy’s legacy is perhaps best described by his long-time friend and business partner, Wayne McNeil.

“There would probably be no person that I know of in the sport of hockey who has used a bad situation to elevate education, awareness and accountability around some tough issues, but do it in a very positive way,” says McNeil. “He’s just done everything in such a positive way. He’s never come at this angry. He’s come at everything trying to make a positive difference.


“The cool thing is, yeah he played in the NHL, yes he won a Memorial Cup, and he won a gold medal at World Juniors, all of those great hockey accomplishments. But what he has accomplished in terms of the culture of the sport is phenomenal.”

Kennedy is part of the Class of 2020 of the Order of Hockey in Canada that will be honoured on June 14 during the Hockey Canada Foundation Virtual Gala. The accolade is the latest among the many tremendous accomplishments for the Elkhorn, Man., native, which also include being a Member of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Alberta Order of Excellence.

Kennedy, with McNeil, founded the Respect Group in 2004 and, since then, the company’s e-learning modules have helped train millions of Canadians to recognize and prevent abuse, bullying, discrimination and harassment in sports, schools and workplaces.

“It’s a huge honour, both personally and for the issues that I represent,” says Kennedy, 51. “If I look at the history of Sheldon, of myself, in being involved in these issues from the time I told my story in 1996 to all the work that’s been done over the last 23 years … There was a time that I and the issues I represented weren’t in a position to receive any awards. Nor did people ever want to recognize Sheldon because of my history with struggles.


“When I look at an award like this, this represents hope and it gives people strength and hope that no matter where you’re at in your life, you can always reach those goals. This is what that represents to me. It’s both personal recognition but it’s also recognition for the issues that I represent, those kids and those people that have been hurt as kids. It shows how far we’ve been able to move the issue and raise the bar.”

It can sometimes be difficult to recall what the world was like over two decades ago. But when Kennedy shared his story of sexual abuse at the hands of his junior hockey coach Graham James in 1996, he wasn’t treated as a victim. At the time, James was among the most well-known junior coaches in the game and Kennedy’s rocky ride in the NHL was used against him. His struggles with drug and alcohol addiction were the focus of newspaper headlines and the story that many tried to spin then was a troubled hockey player making accusations against a renowned and respected coach.

“When I told my story and disclosed my story, there was a lot of questioning – people questioned me about my disclosure, they questioned me about what really happened, there was a lot of that,” he says. “Graham painted himself as being this great person, meanwhile Sheldon was this troublemaker. There was a lot I had to prove that this was not who I am and what was going on in my life was not who I was.”

Kennedy learned a lot during that time, including something that surprised him – that his story, while dark and tragic and difficult to discuss, wasn’t unique. He received thousands of letters from abuse victims from across the country and beyond. And that’s the time he turned his tragedy into opportunity to raise awareness and shine a spotlight on abuse.

In 1998, Kennedy raised $1.2 million in support of sexual abuse victims when he rollerbladed across Canada. It was a few years later that he and McNeil came up with the idea of an e-learning module to help those involved in sport recognize the signs of abuse, understand their roles and what they could do, and form a common language around the subject. To that point, all training on bullying and abuse had been done in person, in a classroom-type setting.

The Respect Group’s modules have grown and evolved over time and today you would be hard pressed to find someone involved in youth sport or education who hasn’t taken the training.

“For the last 23 years, it has been about shifting and changing and educating and teaching. Our whole mindset has been on the 98 per cent of people, the good people in not only the game of hockey but in all areas, to educate them in our communities to be better,” says Kennedy. “What we knew, and what I knew when I rollerbladed across this country, is that people didn’t know, they didn’t know what to do. And every incident that came before me, there were bystanders. So how do we create a confidence with those bystanders to be able to ask questions and come forward. That was our best defence.”

The work is far from done and, really, will never be done. Kennedy likes the analogy of a hockey team working on its power play. If that power-play unit hits 27 per cent effectiveness, and is maybe first in the league, you don’t stop working. You try to get to 30 per cent and beyond.

So, Kennedy and McNeil and their team keep going. There will always be challenges to overcome and people to help.

When Kennedy looks back on how he was able to commit his life to helping so many others, he says the work really began when he acknowledged the importance of his own health first.

“If I didn’t put myself and my own wellness as my number-one priority, none of the other things in my life would be where they’re at,” he says. “I’ve been able to have a healthy life; that means healthy relationships with my partner and daughter and son and my business colleagues. To me, that was something that I didn’t do at the start. I was out there just telling my story. That’s where we were at in the early days and trying to push for change. Meanwhile, I didn’t do the work on myself. Sometimes we forget how hard this work is and how important it is to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves. The healthier I am, the better I am at showing up for others, the better I can help and be prepared to do the best I can.”

For more information:

Dominick Saillant
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
514-895-9706
[email protected]

 

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

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