Playing With Fire by Theo Fleury

I heard Theo Fleury speak at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse last summer during the Adäka Cultural Festival, but hadn’t had a chance to read his autobiography, Playing With Fire, until recently.

I finished it quickly.

He writes forcefully about his addictions and the abuse and neglect that underpinned them. Much of the book also contains colourful tales of his phenomenal success in hockey and the parties that were fuelled and funded by that success.

During his years as a Calgary Flame and an Olympic hero, Fleury won over many fans for his lion-hearted play. Although short in stature, on the rink he would split the big oak tree defensemen of the clutch-and-grab era, giving them a few quick slashes and crosschecks, just on the clean side of a minor penalty, then tip in a goal while the behemoth opponents winced.

Then he’d taunt them with his stick and yell, “I’ll carve your eye out!” as the puck dropped and they stumbled to keep up with the fiery high flyer.

It stands to reason that his zeal, perhaps channeled aggression from neglect and abuse, would extend into the extra-curricular zone too. Perhaps there is an unintended danger that his descriptions of booze, drugs, strippers, and fancy hotels might lead a youngster to want to sample this forbidden fruit.

He writes: “You can ask anybody and they will tell you partying with me is the most fun you’ll ever have in your life.” But at the end of the day this is a cautionary tale.

Fleury offers this countervailing warning about drug use, and about a drug binge gone wrong: “I have never been the same since that episode. I have had panic attacks ever since. They are more manageable now, since I have had counseling and gained some tools.”

He emphasizes that addictions get worse over time and describes how his relationship with himself and those around him became mired in conflict: “Underneath anger is sadness. If you are not happy, what do you project? You project anger. What does anger say? It says, ‘Leave me the f— alone.’”

Eventually the addictions he employed to obscure pain took him to the cusp of suicide. He recommends anyone suffering from addiction, whether they have suffered abuse or not, to seek help and acquire tools for a better life.

Although his party tales aren’t for the faint of heart, neither are his descriptions of sexual abuse and the subsequent manipulation of the coach who scooped him from a small prairie town in his youth.

His account is timely, and is an important voice added to those encouraging people to reach out, whether to a help line, a friend, a family member, or the police. He writes: “I needed to tell as many people as I could, because that’s where the healing is.”

In the end, the ever-tenacious Fleury triumphs over temptations, professional pressures, demons, and cravings after a plea to a higher power to take the cross of addiction from him. It is inspirational and convincing.

The book also has its lighter moments. In his tale of a young prairie boy who grew up neglected but always knew he was destined for greatness he drops many names and describes his journey towards Stanley Cup glory and Olympic Gold.

If there is one point I take issue with it’s his suggestion that as a young lad he could do the Rubik’s cube instantly when a friend tossed it to him. Two minutes for embellishment Theo.

Fleury speaks frequently, traveling across the continent, and you can tell. When I heard him in Whitehorse his delivery was seamless. He introduced his remarks with a prayer to the elders, accompanied by an instruction to the youngsters to take off their caps out of respect.

He invoked his Metis background and held the crowd of many demographics spellbound.

The emotional crescendo came when he described his conversion, described in his book as a sort Garden of Gethsemane supplication: “I was dying a slow, painful, lonely death because alcohol doesn’t take your life right away. It eats away at your soul and your spirit… Suddenly, I hit my knees and said, ‘God, please, please, please take this obsession away,’ and I sat there crying and praying for hours. I thought about being in cocaine-induced rages in the desert, talking to f—ing cacti, yelling at God… I needed some outside intervention. I needed God. My life was a disaster.”

Appealing to a higher power and seeking counseling to “unlink” from the abuse perpetrated upon him worked: “[Therapy] taught me that if you want your life back, you cannot hand it over to the memory and let the perpetrator steal your future.”

“So if you are in the situation I was in… call for help.”

“Seriously, you are not alone. Pick up the phone.” 

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