For the first time in his life, Theo Fleury is happy with who he is.
Considering where he was 10 years ago, to even be here now is nothing short of astonishing, let alone for him to be happy.
His story has been told and rehashed many times in the last decade.
He was the all-star NHL hockey player who’s life had been consumed by booze, drugs, guilt and shame due to the abuse and trauma he suffered growing up at the hands of coach Graham James.
His first book, Playing with Fire, Fleury detailed his life that had turned into hell. His recently released second book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake written with therapist Kim Barthel, details his road to recovery.
“Ten years ago I had a fully loaded pistol in my mouth ready to pull the trigger,” said the now 46-year-old philanthropist. “The whole experience of writing the first book; take out all the NHL stuff and all the hockey stuff, I’m basically telling a lot of people’s stories, the dark side of life. We all go through the same stuff, we all feel the same way, we all make the same choices, to deal with the after effects of trauma, emotional pain, emotional scars.
“In 2005, that’s where I was at, I hadn’t even peeled one layer of onion off yet, I was still in full survival mode …
“The writing of Playing with Fire changed everything.”
Fleury was one of the most dynamic and surprising players to play in the NHL. He was five-foot-six and always deemed too small to play. If anything that judgment motivated him and he went on to score 1,088 points (455 goals, 633 assists) and 1,840 penalty minutes in 1,084 games over 16 seasons. He has a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal a Canada Cup gold and a world junior gold.
But his demons eventually took over. He played his last NHL game in 2003 as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks but his addictions and unresolved issues continued to drag him down, following him to Horse Lake and his run with the club to the Allan Cup in 2005 and then finally to Belfast, Ireland, that fall.
On Sept. 18, 2005 he had his last drink.
He has been on the road to recovery since.
In 2009 he released Playing with Fire, and a whole new world opened up to him.
Instead of being a lightning rod for negative controversy as he had been in his playing career, he became an outlet for those who had also been abused and had gone through childhood trauma.
Shortly after the book came out, he was giving a presentation to a group of about 50 in Calgary. Afterwards he was approached by a 72-year-old who said he was abused for 705 straight days, but Fleury was the first person he ever told.
“Can you imagine what this guy has been carrying around for his whole entire life, and for him to feel safe enough to come up to me and tell me his story?” said Fleury.
“That’s what this is all about.”
Since the release of Playing with Fire he has had more than 500,000 people reveal their past abuse to him, many of whom had never talked about it before.
“The next question they always ask is where do I go from here?” he said.
In May 2012 Fleury was a keynote speaker at a conference on resiliency at the Aulneau Renewal Centre in Winnipeg, but it was another speaker’s presentation that changed his life.
That’s when he first saw Barthel, a person he calls the “Wayne Gretzky of therapy.”
After her lecture, he introduced himself to her and invited her out to his Calgary home. After one 72-hour marathon session around his kitchen table, Fleury reached an epiphany.
“At the end of the conversation I realized there wasn’t one thing I could change about my life to make it any different, which took away all the shame, all the anger, all the guilt, all the stuff that I thought I had got rid of by writing Playing with Fire,” he said. “This is a life-long process of self discovery.”
Fleury describes their connection as a therapeutic friendship, both contributing to the relationship with their own expertise.
He compares the two books as one laying it all out there, and Conversation with a Rattlesnake as more of an instruction manual on how to deal with childhood trauma.
“We want people to self-reflect on their own lives and we teach people how to have these conversations in the book,” he said.
Beyond Rattlesnake, Fleury and Barthel have also started an internet radio show also called Conversation with a Rattlesnake and are creating the Breaking Free Foundation. He has also helped advocated for the Be Brave Ranch in Edmonton, a facility dedicated to helping children who are victims of abuse and trauma.
“I think there’s only six guys in Canada that speak about sexual abuse and their experiences, there’s lots of work that needs to happen,” he said.
Fleury rarely laces up the skates anymore.
In place of hockey, however, is music. He started an old school country band with some old friends called Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Rebels.
It started out with Fleury just wanting to scratch writing a song off his bucket list. He contacted family friend Phil Deschambault from the Winnipeg band Ash Koley to help him with the process.
Together they wrote and recorded the song As the Story Goes — available on iTunes and a video on Youtube.
It turned out far better than he thought, an instinct confirmed by Deschambault.
Together with a few more friends they wrote 30 songs and put the 10 best on an album entitled I am who I am.
Fleury describes the project as being really dark but with a lot of “cool lyrics, and cool lines” and thinks it will shock people.
In the same way writing books has been therapeutic, song writing is proving to be a new release.
“Of all the things I do, it’s the thing I love to do the most,” he said. “I’ll have an idea and I’ll write a few lines in my notes on my iPhone … I love the process of sitting down with an idea and going back and forth and coming up with a song.”
This week, the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted it’s most recent class with Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg, Dominik Hasek, Mike Modano, coach Pat Burns and referee Bill McCreary all going in. If Fleury had not melted down in his last few seasons in New York and Chicago, he’d likely already be enshrined.
He says it is something that he thinks about often, and would love to one day hear his name called, but does not get too hung up on.
“I can live with it either way, I’d rather be in the hall of fame of life rather than the Hockey Hall of Fame,” he said. “Hockey no longer defines who I am as a person, it’s something that I used to do.”