‘A life story, not a hockey story’

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BREN­DAN KELLY

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.

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