TORONTO – Theo Fleury suffered silently, alone with his pain until he could take it no more and tried to drink it all away.
When the hurt returned the cycle would repeat, and as the years went on he began to lose more and more control. By the time the former NHL star disappeared from the public eye some five years ago, most fans could only remember the sad and peculiar sideshow he had become, not the tiny-but-dazzling dynamo on the ice he had been for over a decade.
Sober four years and enjoying a stability in his life he never before had, Fleury now wants to set the record straight. His autobiography “Playing With Fire,” released Wednesday, answers many of the questions people had about his at-times maniacal behaviour.
By exposing his demons – most notably the sexual assaults he says he was subjected to by former junior hockey coach Graham James and the substance abuse it led to – the 41-year-old Fleury has found relief.
“The only way you can get any kind of recovery in this process is to tell somebody, you’ve got to get it out there,” Fleury said in an interview Wednesday. “I felt with four years sobriety under my belt that I would be able to handle it and stay strong and get the message out there.
“I wanted people to understand why everything kind of went off the rails towards the end.”
Fleury made a spectacular debut with the Calgary Flames in 1989, a five-foot-six bundle of speed and energy pinballing off the big men around him with eye-popping skill and relentless determination.
He helped the Flames win the Stanley Cup that year and went on to record 455 goals and 633 assists in 1,084 games. But he says he was haunted by abuse recounted in his autobiography in cringe-inducing detail.
James was convicted in January 1997 of more than 350 incidents of sexual abuse involving Sheldon Kennedy and an unidentified Swift Current teammate, and was sentenced to 42 months in prison.
James has not commented publicly on Fleury’s charges since the hockey player’s account hit the headlines.
Fleury sat on the sidelines as the original trial played out, unable to tell his story.
“I wasn’t ready to deal with Graham James at that time,” he said. “I wasn’t mature enough. That’s why I didn’t come forward, because I wasn’t ready. I think I would have caused more harm to myself if I would have come out at that time, as opposed to what I’m doing today. Today I’m way more stable, I’m way more aware of who I am and what I would like to accomplish from this whole thing.”
Asked it that included filing a complaint against James with police, Fleury said it was under consideration.
“I have a team of people and we’ve talked about it,” he said. “It’s in its process and you will all know when that happens. I’m not going to make any rash decisions, it’s a complicated issue and we want to make sure we have everything in place when it comes time to do that.”
Fleury said he doesn’t have “any feelings either way” towards James and isn’t sure where his former coach is. He feels he’s equipped to live with the two years of abuse he suffered as a teenager.
“I went through my therapy and psycho-therapy and everything that comes along with that to get to a place in my life where it doesn’t have as much bite as it used to,” Fleury said, “That allows me to me move on with my life, and finally get some peace.”
Getting to that point was far from simple.
His life began spiralling out of control when he joined the New York Rangers in 1999 and his partying and substance abuse went to a new level.
Fleury talks about hanging with degenerates in the book and his behaviour became increasingly erratic. He infamously shoved the Sharks mascot under the arena stands in San Jose and was suspended for violating the NHL’s substance abuse problem.
“We started peeling the layers of the onion off, but 30 days (in rehab) isn’t enough to deal with what I was dealing with,” he said. “Basically, trying to stay sober and dealing with these issues is difficult because I used alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. We took that away and it got progressively worse and worse and that’s why I kept relapsing and getting into trouble with the program.
“I couldn’t follow the rules because I didn’t have the tools to deal with what was going on.”
He joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 2002-03 and admits now he shouldn’t have been playing hockey. He was suspended twice more with a scuffle at a Columbus strip club in between, unable to dodge the drug tests he was subjected to.
In the book Fleury claims he had 13 “dirty tests” in a row and used Gatorade and even his infant son’s urine to skirt the rules. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly denied that, adding terms of the program prevented him from “responding with specifics.”
Fleury says he was only cheating “myself.”
“Basically, the reason why I told that story is because it shows the insanity of the disease that you’re in at the time,” he added. “I started writing this book over 2 1/2 years ago, I’ve evolved so much in the last 2 1/2 years and part of it was being able to write this book, putting it all on paper and looking at it and going, I was insane.
“The insanity of the disease had such a hold on me.”
So much so that at one point in either 2003 or ’04, Fleury engaged in a three-month bender at his Santa Fe home in New Mexico and nearly killed himself.
He writes that one night at 2 a.m., he “put the barrel in my mouth with my finger shaky on the trigger.” He ended up throwing the gun down, mellowed by two lines of cocaine and a shot of Stoli.
“That was one of those kind of a-hah moments that I had, it really kind of started the process to get me here today,” said Fleury. “I’d been to four treatment centres by that time, so I basically knew what to do, it was just a matter of making that last decision, saying, ‘I’m not going to live my life this way any more.”‘
He’s sticking to that now and he’s unsure what the future holds.
Fleury is working with a group of people in Calgary, where he now lives with wife Jennifer, looking to start a treatment centre for victims of sexual abuse, and has some speaking engagements lined up.
A comeback attempt with the Flames last month fell short, although some other job in the game might be in the cards.
“My experience, not too many guys have played in as many big games as I have and I think I have a lot to share in that aspect,” he said. “I don’t know what that looks like. The Flames and I have talked once and they’re interested in doing something with me, I don’t know what that looks like as of yet, but we’ll keep pursuing it.”
With a clear head and his life under control, he’s feels he’s ready for whatever awaits.
“Four years ago I surrendered, I got out of the driver’s seat and moved over into the passenger’s seat and my life has been incredible since then,” said Fleury. “There have been so many amazing things that have happened since I decided I was going to surrender and give it to (God) that my life has changed. I’m happy, I’m content, I’m at peace, I have a great family, a great wife, great kids.
“In the end that’s what it’s all about, it doesn’t have to be about the gory details.”