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
“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
“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
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
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.”