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Hickey Doesn't Get It

After two columns where Pat Hickey libels Theo Fleury, it's time to do some fact checking.

Dylan Lynch

A lot of my personal and limited success as an amateur hockey writer comes from the Montreal Gazette's Montreal Canadiens hockey blog; Hockey Inside/Out. When I began writing several of my opinions and articles were featured there and I owe them a great debt of gratitude for that. I consider Mike Boone to be a personal friend. Pat Hickey played a large part in that website's creation and success since it began around the time I started university. Mike Boone has featured two stories on me in the Gazette and featured my comments another two times. I felt before writing this piece that it was important to write this preface so all readers understand that I don't criticize the Gazette lightly, nor do I take any pleasure in doing so. I understand that I may be burning some bridges here, that should tell you how important this is.

However I'm compelled to weigh in here, not just because I'm extremely uncomfortable with what Hickey has said over the last 48 hours, but because of the reactions/non-reactions of others and the urging of a good friend, who urged me to express publicly what we'd spoken about privately.

The point is simple here, Pat Hickey doesn't get, and he doesn't have any interest in understanding it. Perhaps he thinks he was attacking the culture of hero worship in modern society, as he alluded to on TSN 990, but he miserably failed in context, truth and target. I'd like to go through both of Hickey's articles on the subject, as well as use some of his interview on TSN 990 to show not only how wrong he is, but how blatantly dishonest.

For the interests of context, I'm not going to cut out any of Hickey's articles. I'll be quoting them in large chunks. I do this because I don't think it would be fair to pick and choose what Hickey said out of context. I'll address everything, starting with his article from December 13th.

"It was the right message from the wrong messenger.

Shortly after Graham James pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting former National Hockey League player Theoren Fleury and an unnamed victim, Fleury held a news conference and accused Canada’s politicians of doing nothing to protect our children.

He was criticial [sic] of the ruling that allows James to remain free on bail in Montreal until he is sentenced by a Winnipeg court in February.

"It’s just unbelievable for me when I think about what happened and that he was granted a pardon," said Fleury, referring to a pardon following a similar conviction in 1997. "Then he was allowed to leave the country, go to Mexicio [sic] and who know what he was doing in Mexico. Then he comes back, they give him bail so he can continue his behaviour in Montreal."

I agree James should be doing hard time. In fact, I don’t understand why he was granted bail earlier this year after Fleury ended years of silence by detailing the abuse in his best-selling, as-told-to autobiography."

If Hickey had kept his focus here and continued on the premise that perhaps Sheldon Kennedy is a better spokesman than Theo Fleury for this cause, I don't think many people would be upset. Although it is distasteful to pit two abuse victims against each other, that would be Hickey's opinion. But that's not how it went. The tone is clear before anything is actually said, this piece is character assassination. Using the adjectives "best-selling" and "as-told-to" to describe Fleury's book, he's already subtly insinuating two things: 1) Fleury is in it for the money and 2) he's not a real writer, therefore... something. Perhaps the insinuation is that Fleury is less than Hickey because he isn't a writer? I'm not sure. However pointing out that Fleury didn't write his book alone is a red herring designed to take credit away from him.

However the opening to this piece doesn't fit with Pat Hickey's appearances on radio. He told TSN 990 that it bothered him when Fleury went after the justice system and politicians over lenience on James, but if it was the right message, why did it bother him in and of itself?

"But I find it hypocritical that Fleury can blast the justice system for giving James two months of freedom when he provided his former coach with years.

James’s perversions first came to light when former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy stepped forward in 1996. Kennedy is the hero of this piece and, on the day James pleaded guilty, he was testifying before a U.S. Congressional hearing into sexual abuse of children, a hot topic in the U.S. in the wake of scandals involving alleged criminal acts by coaches at Penn State and Syracuse University."

And instantly anyone with any ounce of experience in the matter, or understanding of abuse has their back up. Hickey has backed himself into a corner over this statement since, repeatedly saying on TSN Radio 990 that Fleury was a man when Sheldon Kennedy came forward and should have done the same. This is a remarkable display of ignorance in human psychology, and a clear remnant of 50's machismo that Christie Blatchford would love. Hickey might as well have said "Man up". The idea that you can snap your fingers and recover from years of sexual abuse is astoundingly ignorant. That Hickey claims to have "read literature about abuse" makes this even worse.

Bringing up Penn State here serves a clear purpose which you'll see later. It's a subtle subliminal message.

Fleury didn’t show the same courage as Kennedy, which is understandable because he had more to lose. Kennedy was a role player whose career was being derailed by substance abuse. Fleury was a star and, if he was having problems with drugs or alcohol at that time, they hadn’t affected his performance on the ice. If Fleury had come forward, there may have been more outrage and James may have received a harsher sentence. If Fleury has [sic] come forward, it might have made life easier for Kennedy.

The same courage? Because everyone is the same? You're actually indicting a victim of abuse for not coming forward sooner, and then lambasting him for not being a good enough role model when he finally does come out? Do you not see the illogical circle of hate here? You're holding up Sheldon Kennedy as if there's an established standard for when someone should speak about abuse, then moving backwards with hindsight to accuse Fleury of not coming forward for fear of losing his spot as a hockey player.

By your logic, Kennedy could be deemed a poor role model for not coming forward before his own NHL career. Whether each player was a star or a grinder is so utterly irrelevant. Your purpose in bringing it up is clearly to establish Fleury as someone who's been given everything while Kennedy had to work for his career. Canadiens fans shouldn't be surprised that you would use this fallacious mode of building a story, you did it with Price and Halak multiple times after all, regardless of the truth.

"Nobody should question Fleury’s decision to remain silent."

You just did, Pat. Not only did you question it, you called him a coward for not coming forward. You used his friend's similar situation as a standard to judge him. You speculated that James would have been punished more severely if Fleury had stepped forward, in effect blaming him for James being free all these years. You did the same thing two paragraphs earlier when you simplistically stated that Fleury had provided James with years of freedom.

"What should be questioned is Fleury’s continuing role in James’s life. At the time of Kennedy’s revelations, James was the coach of the Calgary Hitmen. He was one of the co-owners of the junior team in the Western Hockey League. One of the other owners was Theoren Fleury. Here was someone who had suffered abuse at the hands of Graham James. Here was someone who knew that James had abused other players. Here was someone who was exposing other children to the same sexual predator.

Fleury has been through enough counselling [sic] to know that there's a word for someone who acts in this fashion - enabler

Here's where we see why Hickey mentioned Penn State. Because of the outrage surrounding that controversy, the reader will automatically make an association between Fleury's involvement in the Hitmen and Joe Paterno's involvement with Jerry Sandusky. This is the kind of oversimplification Hickey is constantly guilty of here.

I think there is an interesting distinction between obfuscation and lying. This paragraph comes dangerously close to that distinction. As Hickey pointed out, he's a veteran journalist of over 40 years, so because of this I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he researched this paragraph, but in a way it is almost better that he didn't. The implication here is that Fleury was one of small number of decision makers for the Hitmen and hired James himself. What is conveniently omitted in Hickey's piece is that Fleury and James weren't co-owners of the Hitmen, they were two of eighteen investors in the team. Others included Brett Hart and Joe Sakic.

Not only that, but Hickey accused Fleury of dodging questions pertaining to his responsibility during James' employ of the Hitmen. But that's not true. It is a legitimate question to ask why Fleury didn't object to James being hired and why why he was in business with him, and Fleury has been open and honest about it. Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy dug up this article from the Toronto Star where Fleury addressed this exact issue:

"It's kind of like the Stockholm Syndrome," Fleury said. "It's weird how after all that happened, you can still feel some sense of loyalty towards somebody, but that's the hold that he had on me. It's not that way today. ... But I hope by explaining and coming forward, we can help a whole bunch of people who are afraid to come out with their own stuff, because it can be done."

Does Hickey believe that Fleury has some mental block over the fact that Graham James was a part of his life? I guarantee that he deals with it every day.

"We should all hope that there is a greater awareness of sexual abuse, particularly when it involves children, and that the perpetrators of these acts are dealt with harshly. But if we have to find a poster boy for abuse, we can do better than Theoren Fleury.

A current TSN promo for the upcoming world junior championships spotlights Fleury. A better choice would have been his teammate on the 1988 gold-medal team - Sheldon Kennedy."

Here's the problem with that Pat; Fleury isn't a "poster boy". He is using his relative fame to help others and hopefully exact larger punishment for sexual predators in this country. Sheldon Kennedy is doing the same, but Sheldon Kennedy isn't a household name in this country. To tarnish one to raise another has no place in the discussion. It serves no purpose.

Hickey attempted to defend himself with another column today, but in effect just dug a deeper hole.

"When I weighed in on the latest developments in the Graham James sexual-abuse case in Tuesday’s paper in a column under the headline "Fleury is no poster boy for fighting abuse", I expected a reaction.

As a columnist, I have opinions – and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. This was one of those times.

As of Tuesday afternoon, I had received more than 200 emails and countless Twitter messages, and the majority were critical of my views. I have no problem with that, but I do have a problem with what seems to be some misconceptions about what I wrote.

Several dozen people have accused me of being sympathetic to James, but nothing could be further from the truth. I wrote that James shouldn’t have been released on bail last year and – I know I’ll get some of my liberal friends upset at this – I believe they should lock him up and throw away the key."

Congratulations Mr. Hickey, you believe a serial child rapist belongs in prison. This entire first section of your column is building a straw man argument. Essentially what you're doing is ignoring legitimate criticism and lumping it all into a misconception that I'm guessing relatively few people even mentioned. It was clear from the beginning that you weren't defending Graham James, that was never the problem. The problem is that you were shifting criticism from James onto a victim of his. Your stated goal in doing so was to promote another victim as a better role model. Instead of accomplishing that stated goal, you wrote a hit piece on a victim for sexual abuse and effectively called him a coward for not doing what he's done now 15 years ago.

I have been accused of being insensitive toward victims of abuse. I grew up in New York and attended all-male Catholic schools during the greatest abuse scandal in the history of the church. I know people who were abused, and I’m aware of the physical and emotional pain they endured. I had advances made on me.

I had a football coach who wanted to check to make sure our protective cups fit properly. I wasn’t abused, but that doesn’t make me better or stronger than someone else ... just luckier.

Because, you know, having a coach touch your jock strap and knowing people who were abused is the exact same as multiple years of being raped, right? Here's the problem Pat, you keep saying you understand, you don't. I don't either. Unless you're a trained therapist who deals with abuse victims or an abuse victim yourself, you can't understand. This is similar to depression, which is getting more awareness now, but even 5 years ago people were told to pick themselves up by their boot straps and just stop being sad. You don't know, you can never know, but you can be sympathetic, and you're not.

That's a pretty damning thing for me to say, I know, but listening to how you reacted to a caller named Daniel on TSN Radio 990 (link to the audio at AllHabs) spoke volumes as he attempted to explain to you how hard it is to speak out. Your audible sighs and clear frustration throughout belied a lack or respect and understanding.

"I’ve been accused of blaming the victim, in this case Theoren Fleury. I wrote that I had no problem with Fleury’s decision to hide the abuse he suffered from James. This is not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse, and I suspect the overwhelming majority of James’s victims remain anonymous. But Fleury drew attention to himself when he called a press conference to criticize what is a flawed legal system."

Yes, you did write that, right after you accused Fleury of being a coward for not stepping up sooner, and insinuating that he didn't because he was greedy to keep his career as a star NHL player.

Your logic is so inherently confusing over these columns. On the one hand you continually insult Fleury for not stepping forward, then whenever he does you say he opens himself to criticism or isn't a good enough role model. It seems like he can't win and your mind was made up on him long ago.

"The most troublesome word for most readers was my characterization of Fleury as an enabler in his role as a part owner of the Calgary Hitmen, a junior team co-owned by James and coached by James. Many people have mentioned the complex relationship between abuser and victim, but someone has to feel empathy for the players and parents of the Hitmen who felt they were doing the right thing by putting themselves in the hands of James.

After all, here was a coach who had guided two players to the NHL – Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy, another one of James’s victims – and he had the imprimatur of an NHL superstar. What could go wrong?"

Considering you displayed this information in a dishonest way, there should be no surprise that readers were troubled by that characterization. The implication that not blaming Fleury for Graham James coaching the Hitmen is somehow not showing empathy for the people who suffered at his hands during that time is also dishonest. It is a clear false dichotomy in a search for someone other than Graham James to put blame onto.

"On his website Monday night, Fleury called for me to be fired.

On Tuesday, Michael Landsberg asked me if I was willing to appear with Fleury on TSN’s Off The Record.

I agreed. Fleury declined."

The way Hickey ends his "clarification" column might be the most damning part of this entire situation. Should anyone be surprised that Fleury doesn't want to be bullied on national television? Personally I think Landsberg would stop that from happening, but this last line is clear bullying, make no mistake. Hickey is attempting to turn his ignorant column into a conduit where he can attack Fleury with a larger audience. Why on earth would Fleury take part in that?

Hickey mentioned in his radio interview that he's not convinced that Fleury has had a positive effect on people who've been abused. That flies in the face of what thousands of people have said publicly. Largely because of the efforts of Theoren Fleury there's far more public awareness of sexual abuse in sports, as well as higher criticism of weak laws against the abusers.

Even if you don't personally like Theoren Fleury, or find his past actions to be distasteful, what he is doing now has meaning. This is a man who lived his entire adult life in pain and as an addict and victim. He still battles those demons every single day, and uses them as a motivation to help others. Fleury is far from perfect, and if you'd read his book he would be the first person to tell you so, but that doesn't diminish what he is doing now.

Reactions like Pat Hickey's are actually very common. How often today do people cry out for someone with clout to speak on an issue, only to tar and feather anyone who comes forward? Remember when Mario Lemieux, someone with actual power in the NHL, started speaking out on hits to the head? Instantly people called him a hypocrite for employing Matt Cooke. Everyone is looking for someone to do all the work, but no one is ever good enough.

Reactions like Pat Hickey's do nothing good for this situation, if anything they shame people who've been abused into staying silent.

I understand that Stu Cowan and the Gazette have a responsibility to defend their columnists, especially long tenured ones like Pat Hickey. And Hickey has been told he'll be facing no punishment for his column, but they also have a journalistic responsibility to tell the truth, and Pat Hickey came dangerously close to lying in his column by omitting relevant facts.