TORONTO – With his painful past out in the open, his abuser behind bars and his addictions held in check, it’s tempting to believe Theo Fleury has put his demons behind him.
But it’s clear in the new documentary “Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire” that’s far from the case. In one scene, the former NHLer seethes with anger over the sex assaults he suffered as a teen. In another, friends and family members vent their raw resentment over the way he treated them in his drug-addled days.
Producer/director Larry Day says he tried to offer an accurate snapshot of Fleury’s troubled past and present, describing the hockey hero as a “mercurial” figure difficult to pin down.
“This is more of a character study about an intriguing personality who in many ways is a walking contradiction,” says Day, a Calgary-based filmmaker whose company Pyramid Productions has also crafted profiles of Jann Arden and Ian Tyson.
“He’s mercurial but very charismatic. He’s funny, he’s at times angry. He’s very smart and yet he’s capable of doing some foolish things. Just about anything you can imagine happening to a hockey player has happened to Theoren Fleury so it’s an amazing story. And that in a nutshell makes for a good film.”
Day says he spent more than a year criss-crossing the continent with Fleury as the Stanley Cup champion visited the sites of his biggest triumphs and darkest moments, starting with his poverty-stricken childhood home in small-town Manitoba.
It was there that Fleury, a small kid with unbridled energy, discovered a remarkable talent for handling a puck on the ice. The film notes he adopted the arena as his second home, a place where he found a welcome escape from a chaotic family life.
Fleury was barely into his teens when he met Graham James, a scout for the Western Hockey League who immediately recognized the boy’s talent and took him to Winnipeg to become a junior hockey star.
According to Fleury, James also recognized a vulnerability that would be easy to exploit. Fleury recounts with a frank, matter-of-fact delivery that he repeatedly fought off the man’s advances until he could no longer do so.
“All I ever wanted was somebody who was an adult to come and rescue me,” he says in the film.
All this is also detailed in his bestselling book, “Playing with Fire,” co-written by Kirstie McLellan Day, Larry Day’s wife.
She appears throughout the film to help outline Fleury’s meteoric rise to superstardom in 1989, the year he joined the Calgary Flames and the year they won the Stanley Cup.
But success brought out an increasingly self-destructive streak in Fleury. Flush with cash, he was able to indulge his proclivity to drink, take drugs, gamble and seek comfort in strippers. These vices dogged him when he joined the New York Rangers, and later, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Larry Day says Fleury has since confronted his addictions and made great strides in repairing the relationships he destroyed. But there is still a long way to go.
“It would be nice to believe in a story where it all gets wrapped up nicely and our hero moves on with his life doing great things and is no longer bothered,” says Day.
“That’s not the true cost of abuse, though. It leaves damage, really, forever. Theo will tell you that he’s not a victim, he’s a survivor. That is his take and that shows how tenacious he is and how strong he is and how brave he is. But he’s still got some issues and he will be honest about that, too. And he has to work at it.”
Fleury himself has said the ongoing James case continues to take its toll.
The former coach was handed a two-year sentence earlier this year for sexually assaulting Fleury and Fleury’s cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the 1980s and ’90s.
Manitoba’s Justice Department has said it is appealing the sentence, which currently allows James to apply for parole and be released by the end of the year.
“These past few months have been tougher than I anticipated,” Fleury says in a blog post dated April 5.
“Not many people have to see the face of their rapist in every newspaper, on thousands of websites, next to photos of their own in several publications, and on blogs all over the place. Not many people have to give public interviews and answer questions about their rapists for weeks on end. I have. And I thought I was powering through it, that it wasn’t affecting me all that much. I was wrong.”
Day says he’s impressed with Fleury’s candour, insisting that nothing was held back in their interviews.
“For him to come forward, as famous as he is, to come forward with this story at this stage in his life is an act of courage.”
“Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire” airs Wednesday (May 9) on The Movie Network and Movie Central.