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Theo Fleury shares life's wild experiences with Vernon students

Former Calgary Flames star discusses addiction, sexual assault and wanting to end his life during hour-long talk at three Vernon schools
Retired NHL star Theo Fleury discusses

Sunday is a significant anniversary in the life of Theo Fleury.

It’s the day 11 years ago the former Calgary Flames NHL star got sober.

“Without my sobriety, I have nothing,” said Fleury, 48, who spoke to three Vernon high schools Thursday about his life. “It’s the greatest thing I’ve accomplished.”

The stories from the seven-time NHL all-star, Stanley Cup, World Junior and Olympic gold medal champion included the morning of Sept. 18, 2005, when Fleury – then living in Santa Fe, NM, his former off-season hockey home – drove to a local pawn shop, bought a gun and bullets, went back to his home, snorted several lines of cocaine, drank vodka, loaded the gun and put the gun into his mouth, ready to end his life.

He remembers the gun rattling against his teeth and what the gun tasted like.

“Then, something snapped,” said Fleury. “I heard a voice that said ‘You’ve never quit anything in your life, why quit now?’

“I had two choices: die or live. I chose to live. I was completely exhausted from living with emotional pain and suffering.”

Fleury’s story began in the farming community of Russell, Man. His dad, Walt, had once been a star player in the 1960s and 70s in the old North Okanagan Hockey League with the Head of the Lake Stampeders.

Fleury played hockey for a team called the Russell Rams, the town’s collection of the best 13 athletes with “three incredible, amazing fathers, coaches and mentors.” They played as a group for nine years.

In Fleury’s last year of pee wee hockey, the four-foot-eight, less-than-a-100-pound forward scored 288 goals in 60-plus games.

Fleury was part of the first-ever bantam hockey draft and was selected in the second round by the Winnipeg (now Moose Jaw) Warriors. At 15, he left behind his alcoholic father and prescription drug addict mother to move to Winnipeg.

“That move would change the rest of my life,” said Fleury.

He would be raped, he said,150 times in two-and-a-half years by a team official.

“If I had said something, it would have been the end of my hockey career,” he explained. “I would have been called a faggot, a homosexual and bullied so I kept to myself.”

At a high school party where he didn’t know anybody, unlike in Russell where he knew pretty much the whole town, Fleury said he had a conversation with a six-pack of beer.

He cracked four of the beers. Being the son of addicts, Fleury said he had crossed the line and became an “instant alcoholic.”

After 15 seasons in the NHL, where the five-foot-six, 165-pound sparkplug collected $400,000 after taxes on payday every  two weeks, Fleury retired in 2003. He then made sure to have at least $5,000 cash in his pocket for spending money because “he never knew where he was going to end up.”

It was in 2007, while attending a Flames’ alumni golf tournament, that Fleury ran into a former Calgary newspaper beat reporter, whose wife, a former Hollywood reporter, was interested in helping Fleury write a book.

Playing With Fire took three years to write and it was at a book signing in Toronto that Fleury met a man he’ll always remember.

“This man, I could see out of the corner of my eye, had a copy of the book clutched in his hands to his heart,” said Fleury. “As he got to the front of the line, he looked me straight in the eyes, pointed to the book and said, ‘Me too.’

“I’ll never forget that man. He was sent to deliver a spiritual message. I needed to hear ‘Me too.’”

Fleury said since that day, more than 600,000 people have come forward, either directly or indirectly, and said ‘Me too;’ that they are a victim.

“Trauma is the most common known experience,” he said. “One out of every three people in the world experience trauma.”

Fleury, a father of four who now gives motivational speeches between singing gigs with his country band, Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Ramblers, told students a number of messages in his hour-long presentation.

Three things he learned in Russell were respect - saying please and thank you, leaving dressing rooms the same way they found it, looking a person in the eye and saying ‘nice to meet you;’ loving and caring for friends and teammates and consquences of actions and decisions.

If you become an addict and survive, you end up in three places: jail (Fleury woke up between “two large Mexican dudes” in a Santa Fe jail), institutionalized (he’s been to four treatment centres) or dead.

If you want to be among the elite of the elite of the elite in any career, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice, something he learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers.

And, for a guy who has gone from “shaking hands with the devil to shaking hands with the Lord,” Fleury said it’s OK to ask for help.

“You are not weak,” he said “You have incredible courage when you ask for help.”

Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star/ Theo Fleury meets Grade 10 Vernon Secondary School students Taylor Ulmer (left) and Kaela Jones

Vernon Secondary Grade 9 student Steven Urazovsky, adorned in a red Flames’ t-shirt, thought Fleury’s presentation was “touching and cool.”

“His message was about never giving up on your dream, and if you get knocked down, you can always bounce back up,” said Urazovsky.

Added Kaela Jones, a Grade 10 VSS student: “He’s very inspirational. When he was talking about caring, I was thinking we need to be more compassionate and respectful of others.”

Fleury has written two books and has been awarded the Canadian Humanitarian Award, the Queen’s Jubilee Medallion and the Aboriginal Indspire Award.

He has been awarded an honourary doctorate in science from the University of Guelph-Humber for outstanding contributions to the mental health of Canadians, and was bestowed with an honourary doctorate in law from Brandon University for his contributions combatting child sexual abuse and for his outstanding efforts to promote healing and recovery.


Roger Knox

About the Author: Roger Knox

I am a journalist with more than 30 years of experience in the industry. I started my career in radio and have spent the last 21 years working with Black Press Media.
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