By Rick MacLean
He was the quintessential NHL hockey player. Small, but tough. A no-holds barred, don’t-mess-with-me kind of player. A Don Cherry Canadian hockey player. A stitch up the face coach and put me back out there kind of guy.
Theo Fleury spent the better part of 16 NHL seasons with the Calgary Flames.
Listed at 5-foot-6, Fleury always played a bigger game than his body ever suggested he could. A talented winger, Fleury scored nearly 500 goals over a career that included an Olympic gold medal in 2002 and a world junior hockey championship.
His story off the ice, however, was a horror.
Fleury’s troubled life followed years of sexual abuse at the hands of his former Moose Jaw Warriors junior coach, Graham James. Finally, in 1997 James pleaded guilty to 350 sexual assaults against two players, including former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. James was sentenced to three and a half years in jail before being paroled in 2001 and eventually pardoned in 2007.
In his 2009 autobiography Playing with Fire, Fleury described what James did to his life. New charges against James were laid as a result of the book. James pleaded guilty to attacking Fleury and former player Todd Holt. He will be sentenced March 20.
Fleury was courageous and blunt in a victim impact assessment he filed with the court recently when he described what James did to him.
“I was just a kid. A child. I was completely under Graham James’s control. And I was scared. I did not have the emotional skills, the knowledge, or the ability to stop the rapes or change my circumstances.
“I felt lost, alone, and helpless. And those feelings did not stop after I was able to get away from Mr. James; I continued to feel that way for 20+ years afterwards. I descended into years of drug addiction, alcoholism, and addictions to sex, gambling, rage,” he said.
“My loved ones, including my beloved children, spiraled down with me. The pain was all encompassing. And no matter how many NHL games I won, or money I made, or fame I gained could dull the pain of having been sexually abused by Graham James. His sickness changed my life, changed the lives of everyone who was close to me, and caused more pain than can be measured.
“Finally, after a night in the New Mexico desert with a gun in my mouth and finger on the trigger, I found the courage to get help and start a long process of healing.”
And now Fleury is coming to Miramichi.
He will be here June 1 as a guest of the Miramichi Rae’s Yamaha Rivermen and the local school district. It’s a chance for people here to share his story of finding hope in the face of terrible adversity.
School District 16 director of education Andrew Clark said Fleury’s appearance fits well with the district’s drug prevention program, and the issues he’s had to overcome in his life are pervasive in this region.
“Theo Fleury is somebody who, through his extraordinary skill in hockey, had a life lived by few and yet his own personal experiences, both in terms of the sexual abuse and drug addictions, I think he can speak to people and get a clear message across,” Clark said.
To their credit, local service groups have helped with the fundraising needed to bring Fleury here.
We can’t expect it will be easy listening when Fleury speaks. But he’s living proof that victims of abuse, victims who felt they had no way out of their situation, can find a way to take back control of their lives. He has a message worth sharing.
Author and former editor of the Miramichi Leader, Rick MacLean teaches journalism at Holland College in Prince Edward Island.