On Wednesday night in Whitehorse, Theo Fleury walked onto the stage at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre and delivered a message of hope and perseverance.
He moved in short, fast steps, a reminder of the way he used to glide across the ice during his 15-year NHL career. The crowd kept their eyes locked on, their attention seized, the air silent and still, except for the rasp of Fleury’s weathered voice.
At 46, his playing days are behind him, the machinery of professional sports having chewed him up and spat him out long ago. As a player, he was known for his gritty, dramatic style of play. Now he’s still capturing the crowd in the early stages of a new career; he refers to himself as a healing motivator.
He spends 200 days a year on the road and speaks at more than 75 events. Since the release of his best-selling autobiography, Playing with Fire, he’s visited 85 First Nation communities across Canada. Whitehorse marks stop number 86.
Fleury spoke highly of his Metis heritage. In a media conference before his keynote speech, he told the room that “it’s a damn shame there are less than 10 First Nation players in the NHL.”
“I go to the communities. I see the talent that is out there. The NHL doesn’t have a clue,” he said.
Fleury grew up in a small town in Manitoba and bounced around the prairies before being whisked away to Winnipeg at the age of 15 to focus on his burgeoning hockey career.
In Winnipeg, at the hands of the coach who moved him there, the same coach who had sat at his family’s kitchen table and told them that moving to Winnipeg was necessary to improve Fleury’s chances of making the NHL, the sexual abuse began. Alcoholism followed shortly after. Drug addiction after that.
When Fleury first stepped onto the ice at age five, with Sears catalogues taped around his legs as pads, his parents weren’t there. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was addicted to prescription drugs. With no family watching on, he fell in love with the game. That love deepened as he grew older, and while it didn’t heal him, hockey became an escape.
“Playing hockey meant everything to my life,” he said. “It meant everything.”
Over his 15-year professional career, Fleury ran the gamut in accomplishments – he was an NHL all-star, a Stanley Cup champion, and gold-medal winning Olympian. But for all his feats on the ice, away from the game he fell deeper into a spiral of addiction and self-hatred.
When he had his first drink, at age 15, he said he became an instant alcoholic. He didn’t know how to identify his feelings, but after discovering alcohol, he knew how to make them go away.
“On the ice I knew who I was, when I left the rink I had no clue,” he said.
Near the tail end of his NHL career, while living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and preparing for the upcoming season with the Chicago Blackhawks, he hit the stop button on the treadmill and decided he’d had enough. “I didn’t want to play hockey anymore,” he said.
He didn’t call the Blackhawks organization. He didn’t call his agent. He just left. After crashing into the league, flying up and down the ice as a haywire spark-plug of high-sticks and cross-checks and goals, he faded out, in silence.
From there, his addictions worsened.
He would spend $3,500 a week on cocaine, draining bottle after bottle, staying up for eight days in a row.
“I’d lived most of my life in emotional pain. I could heal from the physical stuff. The broken bones, the scars, the stitches. But you can’t go to the doctor and say, ‘Can you write me a script for sexual abuse?’ The only way to get out of it was ending my life.”
Fleury drove to a local pawn shop with $5,000 in hand – he said he never left the house with less than that because he didn’t know where the day would take him after that first drink. He bought a gun, went home, drank a glass of vodka and put the barrel of the gun in his mouth.
“I remember it rattling against my teeth,” he said. “I remember what it tasted like.”
He stayed there for a moment, before ripping the gun down and throwing it into the desert. Two weeks later he got a call from his oldest son, Josh, who was 15 at the time, asking him to come home. It had been more than six months since Fleury had been in touch with his family. He put his house up for sale and moved back to Calgary. It was a step in the right direction, but he wasn’t yet ready to be father. “I couldn’t have been a worse example for my son,” he said.
He found himself, one night, crying on the bathroom floor, thinking to himself, “I can’t drink enough. I can’t snort enough. Nothing’s working anymore.”
For most of his life, he couldn’t look in a mirror. He said he couldn’t even sit in a chair, he was too uncomfortable in his own skin.
Eventually, he began playing hockey again. Then he met a woman he fell in love with, and on September 18, 2005, he caught a glance of himself in the mirror and held the stare. He’s been sober ever since.
He started to put his story into words, and in 2009, when his book came out, he flew to Toronto for a signing.
More than 400 people showed up, but one man stood out in the crowd. He was hunched over, head down, moving forward in small, shuffled steps. When he got to the table, he put the book down, looked Fleury in eyes and said, “me too.”
Since then, more than 500,000 people have reached out to Fleury with their own stories of abuse.
The gritty, tough-nosed hockey player has become a touchstone for those who have had their own lives turned upside-down by abuse. It’s a role he’s embraced.
“I’ve found a purpose for my life,” he said. “Sexual abuse is the biggest epidemic on this planet.”
“I found something greater than myself and I can sleep now at night – that’s my miracle.”
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