WESTLOCK - If you want the “gory details,” of the trauma he experienced in his life, you should probably go buy his best-selling book, Playing with Fire, or go find it in your local library.
If you want to hear a story about hope, healing and recovery, you’ll want to hear directly from former NHL star Theoren Fleury himself, just as 400 area residents at the Westlock and District Community Hall did Feb. 21 — earlier in the day Fleury captivated R.F. Staples and St. Mary students with a 40-minute presentation with some extra time for autographs.
Fleury was in town, along with Humboldt Broncos bus crash survivor Tyler Smith, to talk about trauma, from two very different angles, and how they are trying their best to put it all behind them as they proceed down their individual paths to recovery.
Organized by the Soul Sisters Memorial Foundation and the Westlock Warriors senior hockey team, the event, named after Fleury’s book Playing with Fire was branded as a “guys night out,” not to exclude women, but to encourage men, in particular, to reach out to their loved ones and medical professionals, if necessary, when mental stress and fatigue become overwhelming.
Fleury is a seven-time NHL all star who won a World Junior Championship, a Canada Cup, an Olympic gold medal and helped the Calgary Flames win their first and only Stanley Cup championship during his 1988-89 rookie year. He went on to play for the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks before retiring in 2003, following a suspension by the league for violating the terms of its substance abuse program, for the second time in as many years.
The next few years are kind of a blur for Fleury, who was now consuming liquor and cocaine at a rate that only a retired, multi-millionaire sports star could. He had reached the top of a tall mountain that every Canadian kid only wishes they could scale and it was going to be a long, painful journey back down.
“I get back to Calgary and sure enough, I fall in with the same crowd that I always fall in with, and I was partying like an absolute rock star again,” Fleury, who wore his No. 14 Flames captain jersey on stage, told the Westlock audience, many of whom were wearing hockey jerseys of their own in the spirit of the event.
Fleury commanded the crowd, as you would expect a veteran of more than 800 public speaking engagements to do.
The room fell silent for the hour he was on stage, and aside from a few big laughs, likely orchestrated to provide some levity during the darkest parts of his life story, which he started in Russell, Manitoba.
Fleury’s father Wally was a former hockey player in his own right, but that dream ended when he broke his leg and was unable to pursue it any further, which only fed into his alcoholism. He worked as a truck driver and a maintenance worker in Russell, raising three kids, along with wife Donna.
Donna was a devout Jehovah’s Witness who developed an addiction to prescription sedatives and between the two parents and their addictions, Fleury and his two younger brothers, were not provided with a stable home in which to grow up.
The community always looked out for the kids though, and seeing Fleury’s talent with the puck, they came together in 1982 to send him to hockey camp in Brandon. At 13, the young prospect met a scout for the Winnipeg Warriors who recognized Fleury’s sheer talent and promised he would do all he could to see him drafted when he was old enough.
Fleury’s junior career started with the St. James Canadians in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in the 1983-84 season. The next season, as promised by the scout he had met two years before, Fleury became a member of the Moose Jaw Warriors, a WHL franchise that has recently moved from Winnipeg.
That scout was Graham James, who was now the Warriors’ coach.
With the release of Playing with Fire in 2009, Fleury finally told the story of how James sexually assaulted him more than 150 times over two years as a junior hockey player. James pleaded guilty to two charges related to Fleury’s abuse in 2010 and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The trauma he suffered at home as a child and then as a teen hockey player, led him to alcohol and drugs, which he continued to use throughout what could only be described as a stellar NHL career. Despite that he nearly ended his life by his own hand in 2004, putting a gun in his mouth and contemplating pulling the trigger.
Obviously, he didn’t, and since September 2005, he has been completely sober. It took a long, hard talk with a God of his own understanding though, and a long, hard, literal look in the mirror, Fleury told the crowd that was now entirely captivated and immersed in his story.
“I went up one side of God and went down the other side of God, I called him every name in the book and made up a whole bunch of my own,” Fleury said, telling God further that his plate was full and he couldn’t handle any more.
“And then I said, ‘Please God, take away the obsession to drink and do drugs,’ and I went to bed.”
The next morning Fleury said he found himself staring into a large mirror in his home, for what was probably 40 minutes.
“I go ‘Holy s***, my prayers have been answered.’ That was Sept. 18, 2005 and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since that day.”
What he was going to do next with his life though, he did not know.
“When I left the game in 2003, all I had was a Grade 12 diploma from Vanier Collegiate in Moose Jaw, Sask. I had more than half of my life left to live and I had no idea what the rest of my life was going to look like … I didn’t have a plan. I thought I was going to play hockey for the rest of my life,” said Fleury.
Through circumstance, he ran into a media guy he was on friendly terms with, and just asked in passing if he knew anyone who might want to write a book with him. Three days later he was introduced to that man’s wife, Kirstie McLellan Day who helped him write his autobiography, Playing with Fire.
At the beginning of the process, Fleury had no intention of speaking of his upbringing or his parents, or of the actions of his coach. He wanted to focus on his hockey career.
“Early on in the process of writing this book, this lady made me feel safe and I trusted her with my whole entire life and my whole entire story,” he said. “Three-and-a-half years later we finished the book and I tell the whole entire story from start to finish.”
After a media frenzy that included more than 300 interviews, Fleury was off to his first book-signing at the largest Indigo book store in the country, on Yonge St. in Toronto. He was expecting a handful of hockey fans to show up, but was greeted with more than 400 people, all hoping to get their books signed.
More than 80,000 copies were sold in the first six weeks after it was released.
Fleury remembers that first signing vividly and told another story to the still entranced audience.
“Out of the corner of my eye I spot this guy in line. He has my book clenched against his chest and he walked slow and I wondered what was up with this dude … He gets to the front of the line, he puts the book on the table, he looks me directly in the eye and says, ‘Me too.’ “I’ll never forget that guy for the rest of my life.”
It was the message he would soon hear from thousands of others who told him he was telling their story too.
“Something that I thought wasn’t common was actually the human experience. I said to myself that by me finding my own voice and putting a voice to my pain and suffering I can help other people find their own voice and tell their own story. I’ve truly found the real reason I was put on this Earth.”
Soon after Fleury started speaking to interested groups, raising funds for various causes and learning about the connections between trauma, mental health and addiction.
He even befriended a neuroscientist and occupational therapist Kim Barthel, who helped him write his second book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake, which was a collection of conversations between the two.
She told him she could help him rewire his brain and he told her he was “all in.”
“I finally realized that there wasn’t one thing that I could have changed about my life to make it any different.
“For the first time in my life it took away all the shame, all of the guilt, and most of my anger … We realized it was a three-step process — emotional, physical and spiritual — that I needed to rewire my brain.”
That’s the message Fleury now tries to pass on to his audiences, whether it be in a small hall in a town like Westlock, or in a maximum security prison. Coming to terms with trauma, instead of trying to forget about it through drugs or alcohol, isn’t easy, but it’s possible with the help of professionals, friends and the community at large.
The key to dealing with mental illness comes in the form of compassion and forgiveness and until a person realizes that, it’s hard to heal.
“To me that was the ultimate in freedom because I am no longer attached to that piece of my life anymore,” said Fleury.