I’ve written a lot about learning to play ice hockey at an advanced age and how I’ve struggled with my physical conditioning and my mind’s ability to comprehend what I can’t do. When I go to training sessions, I’ve had the full backing of the instructors, who are there for me on the ice and I trust them to give me the right advice off the ice. If I need a piece of equipment or if I’m struggling with keeping my head up after training I know they’ll point me in the right direction. That is what a coach and a mentor is supposed to do.
Imagine a young player who is trying to learn the game and he puts his faith and trust in his coach. He starts to get good at the sport and his coach tells him that he’s going to be there for him but the coach takes advantage of his trust and abuses him. You don’t have to imagine that, it’s happened. Among the many that it’s happened to is Theoren Fleury, a former NHL player who would go on to score 1,088 points in 1,084 games but would drink and party his way through multiple seasons until he finally was able to find himself.
At 5 foot 6 inches, not many gave Fleury hope of fulfilling a career in professional hockey along with the fact that he came from aboriginal family. Born on June 29, 1968, to Wally and Donna Fleury in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, Fleury struggled with a challenging home life. He took out his frustrations wherever he could, sometimes on others in school, but his passion was in hockey once he finally picked up the stick. He almost lost his career at 13 when an errant skate cut deep into his arm forcing him to miss almost a year of development. After this the community of Oxbow, Saskatchewan decided to send their native son to hockey school where Fleury would meet Graham James, the man that would ultimately coach him and plead guilty to charges of sexual assault.
Fleury, however, would thrive in junior hockey and in 1987, at the age of 19, he was drafted in the 6th round by the Calgary Flames. At the start of the 1988 season he was sent down to the Flames’ minor league affiliate in Salt Lake City where he recorded 74 points in 40 games. Looking for a spark, the Flames brought him up and spark he did – registering 34 points in 36 games and then 11 points in games on the way to winning his first and only Stanley Cup. That had to be a hell of a rookie year – winning the Cup and thinking that there had to be more championships on the way.
What was on the way for Fleury was points, penalty minutes and what he wrote about in his autobiography – alcohol, women and drug abuse. Fleury got through 16 years in the NHL by doing what he knew best, being a pest and not letting his lack of size get in the way.
Fleury wrote Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story in 2009, six years after he left the NHL. Fleury’s courage to pour out the demons that have haunted him since the incidents with James that left him searching for an outlet only to find drugs and alcohol. His failed drug tests and the suspensions that went along with it. His sinking depression and the dark holes that he fell into. Through all that Fleury was able to find something inside himself and maybe if nothing else he was able to find himself.
Now that his playing career is done Fleury helps others who have gone through abuse and those who are looking for someone who understand the struggle. As someone who grew up watching Fleury I know how great a hockey player he was, and for that he deserves to be in the HHOF. His life can teach younger players a lesson about speaking out against abuse by coaches, mentors and even family members. He can show us that even though you are small or come from a place where there is nothing you can be someone. He can show us what drugs and alcohol can do and the dark places that they can take you. In many ways Fleury can be a role model, an idol, an example, someone not to follow but most importantly he is a human. For Fleury not to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame is a question that needs to be asked. Is it because he was a fighter? Is it because he was aboriginal? Is it because he was sexually abused? Is it because he talked about his problems in his book?
We should respect and cherish all the things that he has given to the game and let the younger generation learn and understand what this man went through, for he is part of our past and they need to learn to make a better future.