The Manitoba Court of Appeal reserved decision Monday on whether former hockey coach Graham James should serve more than two years in prison for abusing two of his former players.

James is already eligible to ask for full parole and will be eligible for statutory release next summer, if his sentence remains unchanged.

He pleaded guilty earlier this year to sexually abusing NHL star Theo Fleury and his younger cousin Todd Holt when they played for him. James was a respected coach in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s when the abuse took place.

The Crown appealed the sentence and argued Monday that four years would have been more appropriate, considering the nature of the offences and sentencing guidelines.

“He has to pay the price for what he did to his victims and the community,” said Crown counsel Elizabeth Thomson, adding that the public needs to maintain confidence in the justice system.

Thomson told the Appeal Court the trial judge erred in her approach and application of sentencing principles and put too much weight on the 3 1/2 years James received in 1997 for abusing other young players.

James pleaded guilty in 1997 to abusing two other players, including NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. Although police asked him about Fleury at the time, James refused to talk about Fleury unless the player himself came forward.

Fleury finally wrote about the abuse in a book a few years ago, leading to the new charges.

James’s lawyer Evan Roitenberg said the two-year sentence should stand, suggesting it is too harsh.

He said the sentencing judge took into consideration his client’s rehabilitation in the 15 years between James’ first sentence in 1997 and when the new charges were laid.

At trial, Roitenberg had argued for no jail time and said he still thinks that would be fair given the circumstances of the case.

Roitenberg said James had an “epiphany” while in counselling after he was first jailed and realized what he had done to his victims. Until then, he thought they were in loving relationships.

That was too much for Appeal Court Justice Al MacInnes, one of the three on the panel hearing the case.

“For me, you are pushing a big rock up a steep hill if you want me to accept that,” said the judge, who noted James threatened players to keep them from exposing him.

MacInnes made it clear that if it had been up to him, the sentence would have been stiffer. But the Appeal Court judges are only looking at whether Judge Catherine Carlson strayed too far outside the acceptable guidelines in her sentencing.

James served about 18 months of his original sentence from 1997 before being released. He was granted a pardon and left the country.

He coached briefly in Europe and then worked in Mexico for a Canadian company.

He was working there when the new charges were laid and he agreed to return and eventually pleaded guilty. The Crown agreed not to proceed with other charges involving another player, Greg Gilhooly.

Gilhooly was in court Monday and said later that it’s important to get beyond the arguments of lawyers.

“There are victims of child sexual assault out there and the cost to society with the victims is intense,” he said after the hearing.

“We focus on rehabilitating our criminals. We don’t focus enough on rehabilitating our victims.”