‘A life story, not a hockey story’
Theo Fleury has an incredible story to tell.
It’s the story of a guy who had a tough childhood but still made it into the National Hockey League and, despite being only 5-foot-6, managed to become one of the great players of his era. It’s a story he tells with visceral force in his 2009 autobiography Playing With Fire, which is retold with just as much emotional punch in a play at the Centaur Theatre.
The play was written by Kirstie McLellan Day, who co-wrote the book with Fleury, and the one-man show stars Shaun Smyth, who delivers a Stanley Cup-winning performance as Fleury skating on synthetic ice in full hockey gear for two hours as he recounts this harrowing narrative.
Yes, harrowing. Fleury’s life was saved by hockey, then almost destroyed by hockey.
The book starts with Fleury talking about the night he put a gun into his mouth, in the midst of a three-month bender fuelled by mounds of cocaine. The guy who had won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold was ready to end it all, and that desperation can be traced back to what happened to him as a teenager.
He recounts in terrifying detail how he was sexually abused for two years by minor-hockey coach Graham James.
In an interview at an Old Montreal hotel after the première of Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story last week, Fleury — who thinks Smyth does a terrific job — said he never intended to talk about the abuse when he set out to write the book.
“To be honest with you, it was sort of a leap of faith,” Fleury said. “There was no thought process in it other than a chance meeting with an old friend whose wife was a writer … and the intention was not to talk about the past trauma history. I was going to talk about my hockey career. But quickly she gained my trust and it all came out. It wasn’t premeditated, and what’s happened because of it is absolutely incredible and amazing.
“What has happened is that something that I thought was uncommon is very common, and that’s … child sexual abuse. When I came out with my own story, I basically got run over by hundreds of thousands of millions of people who sought me out to either say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve had the same experience as you’…
“I basically haven’t stopped since 2009. I speak all over North America about trauma, mental health and addiction, and how to overcome it.”
The great thing about talking to Fleury is seeing he is clearly in a better place. He was with his girlfriend, and he talked of how he is in the final stages of having a home built for them in Calgary. This is a very different Fleury from the one depicted in the book and play.
He said the message of his talks is “hope, it’s healing, it’s recovery, it’s mindfulness, it’s meditation, it’s spirituality — all those things that are really important when you have to overcome something such as trauma, mental health or addictions. That’s the key to all of it — and talking about it, and that it’s OK to talk about it because it’s your story and nobody else’s, and you should be able to tell your story whichever way you want.”
When he wrote his autobiography, he didn’t know what to expect, and the first clue something big was happening came at an early book signing in Toronto, when 600 people lined up outside the store. He said one guy told him, “Thanks. That’s my story, too.”
“It’s a life story, not a hockey story,” Fleury said.
That said, there is plenty of hockey in Playing With Fire, including the Calgary Flames winning the Cup at the Montreal Forum in 1989. There is a great bit when he talks about sitting in the stands before the game and thought of all of the Habs greats who had played there.
“If I could have held on to that feeling, I would never have touched a drug or another drink,” Fleury writes.
“I was 20 years old,” Fleury said last week. “I definitely appreciate it a lot more now than I ever did at any point in my life. When you’re young, you think, ‘Oh, this is going to happen again and again and again,’ and it didn’t.”
Fleury remains deeply attached to hockey and remains a hardcore Flames fan, but he isn’t a fan of the style of hockey played today.
“I think the game’s overcoached,” Fleury said. “I remember watching an old classic game when Montreal was winning their Cups with Scotty Bowman, and I looked at the bench and Scotty Bowman was running the whole bench. There was no assistant coach. Now there’s four guys and they’ve got iPads on the bench. Like, really? Let the guys be creative.”
Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story continues at Centaur Theatre until Oct. 29. For more information, visit centaur-theatre. com.
Former NHLer Theo Fleury was in town recently for the première of Playing With Fire, a play written by Kirstie McLellan Day, who co-wrote Fleury’s 2009 autobiography.