In Columns

Former professional hockey player Theoren Fleury is best known in Canada for his role with the Calgary Flames, for whom he played between 1989 and 1999. He went on to play for numerous other teams in the NHL, as well as stints in Finland and Northern Ireland. Fleury still holds mythological status in the city of Calgary.

After being told in the juniors that he was too small for the NHL, Fleury learned quickly to ignore his detractors, working even harder in training and on the mental side of the game to succeed. He figured out early on that he would need to develop a certain style of play to have success in the game, and made it his mission to do that.

At the time of his trade from the Flames, Fleury spoke out about what he considered to be his mistreatment by the organisation. During a routine meeting to discuss a potential contract extension, Fleury turned down the money that was on offer. The next day the newspapers were plastered with lies, and he realised it was time to leave.

Fleury’s time in the game ultimately came to an end due to a long-term dependence on drugs and alcohol, and he eventually retired from the game in 2009 after an unsuccessful comeback with the Flames. Being able to retire as a Flames player was important to Fleury, and only strengthened his status as a legend in the city.

Theo Fleury remains one of the most popular players to have played for the Calgary Flames

Since Fleury’s time in the game, the sport of hockey has changed drastically, with much of the game’s previous creativity and aggression being phased out over the years. A big change according to Fleury is that the coaches have become more prominent, many now commanding wages on a par with the players.

With the rise in analytics and video, technology seems to have taken the creativity out of the game, with most teams now playing with the same style. However, changes in the players’ athleticism and speed have helped the game evolve, with new thinking about fitness, exercise and diet helping it become more competitive.

In his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire, Fleury revealed that as a child he had been sexually abused by former coach Graham James. Similar accusations were made by former teammate Sheldon Kennedy, and although Fleury has since gone on to use this abuse to help others, he admits that there was a time when he was not ready to face it.

Fleury and Kennedy played together for a season at the Flames in ‘94-’95, and Fleury admits they were aware of what they shared. Over the years, Kennedy has done an incredible job of creating awareness for survivors of sexual abuse and implementing systems for children’s organisations. His revelations had a huge effect on Fleury’s life.

Throughout his later career, Fleury was not able to entirely escape the presence of his abuser. In 1994, James convinced him to be involved in a group that formed the expansion team the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. The group included professional wrestler Bret Hart, along with James, Fleury and a number of others from the game.

Theo Fleury has dedicated his post-hockey life to public speaking and education on the subject of abuse

When Fleury talks about his inability to escape James’ influence, he talks of the power of Stockholm Syndrome, and how it convinced him to remain loyal to his abuser. In 1997, Fleury sold his stake in the Calgary Hitmen after James was convicted of sexually abusing Kennedy and another player.

Having thought he’d buried his experiences with James and would never have to deal with them again, Kennedy’s revelations opened up old wounds for Fleury. It was around this time that his addictions began to get worse, and can be seen as something like the beginning of the end for his career as a professional hockey player.

Fleury admits that he had used drugs and alcohol from the age of 15, mostly as a coping mechanism for what he experienced as a child. In 2005, Fleury finally quit drugs and alcohol, in the most part due to the influence of his second wife. Nowadays, Fleury admits he is done with drugs and alcohol completely, intending never to return to that life.

More than just an ex-professional hockey player, he has dedicated his post-hockey life to public speaking and education on the subject of sexual abuse, determined to use his own harrowing experiences to make sure others like him do not have to experience anything similar.

Find out more about Theo’s work through Fleury Enterprises by visiting www.theofleury.life.

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Mathew Jelavic