He was the feel-good story of the National Hockey League preseason. Theo Fleury(notes), attempting to make the Calgary Flames after a six-year hiatus from the NHL, wanted to end his career on his own terms. When he left the NHL after the 2002-03 season after being suspended indefinitely for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Fleury was a man still fighting demons that had followed him since childhood.
On September 25th, the Flames announced that they were releasing Fleury from his tryout, even after an impressive preseason with four points in four games. There were rumors that Fleury could wind up with Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat. The 15-year NHL veteran even told reporters he didn't mind if he wound up in Abbotsford, he just wanted to play hockey.
Once the news was official about his release, Fleury debated for a few days about what his next move would be: continue playing and try to work his way back to the NHL or walk away and retire on his own terms like he'd been desiring to do since 2003.
Not long after Fleury announced his retirement on September 28th, the revelations from his book, "Playing With Fire", began coming out. The biggest revelation was that disgraced coach Graham James had sexually abused Fleury during his junior hockey days. It was the sexual abuse at the hands of James, Fleury says in the book, which led to his substance abuse later in life.
Fleury's substance abuse picked up after former NHL'er Sheldon Kennedy revealed in 1996 that James had abused him as well. The news of Kennedy's abuse brought out old memories that Fleury had thought he had suppressed for over a decade:
“I can say probably at that point in my life, that’s when my life started to … because I thought it was buried, dead and gone and we’ll never have to talk about it again. That’s when I started getting into the hardcore drugs, using cocaine, and then, you know, you mix it with the alcohol.
At that point in my life I was so not ready to be able to deal with that.”
Fleury's silence in the years after the abuse at the hands of James was due to his unwavering loyalty to his former coach, who Fleury is currently contemplating pressing charges against. He also reveals in the book that the demons he was fighting since his junior hockey days pushed him to the brink of suicide, finding himself one night putting a gun in his mouth and contemplating pulling the trigger. That experience began the long road to sobriety that Fleury had been desperately seeking:
"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."
The release of his book has given the 41-year old Fleury peace as he finally pursues his life after-hockey. Now sober for the past four years and at peace after facing his inner demons head on, Fleury now wants to raise awareness about sexual abuse and help victims that have gone through similar experiences as he did.:
“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.”