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Playing with Fire: the rise and fall of Theo Fleury


"Playing with Fire," the autobiography of retired NHL star Theo Fleury, tells of a spectacular rise as a professional hockey player, and a horrible descent involving the loss of his self-worth, family, millions of dollars, and almost his life.

Over 15 years, Fleury played for the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.

He also helped represent Canada twice in Olympics hockey - in Nagano, and when Canada won the gold medal in Salt Lake City.

But Fleury's career was spectacularly troubled, and "Playing with Fire" tells the entire story of his addictions and his sexual abuse by Graham James.

At five feet, six inches, and 150 pounds, Fleury was small for a pro hockey player - but he developed a physical style of play based on speed, skill and fearlessness; he had to - in order to survive against players one-and-a-half times his size. If someone like Marty McSorley had him up against the boards, arm around his throat, Fleury didn't mind whipping around and landing two smart punches in the larger player's face as a signal to back off.

Fleury could surprise even the biggest players with his physical and verbal aggression.

He walked to his first practice at the age of five - old skates and a broken stick in a pillowcase slung over his shoulder, while his parents didn't even come out to see him play.

Growing up poor in rural Manitoba, Fleury's dream of making it big in hockey was the one countless kids have shared - after that, his story is not quite so typical. For one, throughout his career, and being of MÉtis heritage, Fleury endured racism.

In 1981, when Fleury was 13, Manitoba coach Graham James recruited him from his minor hockey team in Russell, Manitoba, to play junior in Winnipeg.

Until this book, former Boston Bruin Sheldon Kennedy was the only hockey player to go public about being abused by James, a predator who coerced his victims with threats that they wouldn't make it to the NHL if they didn't do what he wanted.

Fleury reveals the entire harrowing tale of James's treatment of him, calling these occurrences a "daily nightmare." It makes for difficult reading at times. James insisted on certain players staying at his house a couple of nights a week, and Fleury describes how he was able to fend off James - at least initially. But he'd be exhausted the next day from lack of sleep.

On the ice, Fleury's violence was part of his brilliance (455 professional regular season goals, 1,088 points). Off the ice, he became a self-hater - addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling and strip clubs - and associating with shady people of every description.

It says a lot about Fleury's gifts as a hockey player, though, that throughout his career, he could show up at practice sick and hung over from partying all night and still play brilliant hockey. He had so much heart, and it was as though he thrived on adversity - and it was on the ice that everything would become "right" again.

By 2003, Fleury was forced out of the NHL through the league's substance abuse program, having sunken to such a depth that he was trying to fake his urine samples with Gatorade - even one from his infant son.

By then his personal life was a complete mess. He'd been through two marriages, was estranged from his children, his addictions were at their worst, his behaviour had become erratic, and he'd burned his way through most of the $50 million he had earned during his career in the NHL. He came close to committing suicide.

Partly through this book, Fleury has made his peace with leaving the game. He criticizes the New York Rangers and the NHL for being hypocritical - for allowing him to play even though his drug tests were coming back dirty. But he contends that because he was leading his team, and was fourth in the league with 74 points in 62 games, the Rangers and NHL management weren't willing to give him too hard a time.

Fleury encourages other young people suffering abuse to seek help. Clearly, Fleury has made peace with himself as well, and he writes openly and unflinchingly about his abuse. It's with the wisdom of hindsight (and the result of a lot of therapy) that Fleury is able to understand his self-destructiveness - and how it stems from his past as an abused and neglected child.

On another level, Fleury's life story reads like a cautionary tale to recognize and appreciate what you have - or risk losing it. Part of his hard-won wisdom involves recognizing that Graham James and lack of parental involvement can't be blamed for everything that went wrong in his life, and Fleury doesn't duck the truth that he has to take the blame for a good measure of it.

In the book, just as a caution to parents or the easily-offended, Fleury's language is raw. But the tone of the book is also very direct and personal - you feel like he's talking to you face-to-face. I absolutely dare even the most cynical and emotionally impervious of readers not to be moved by this important book; in addition, one can only respect Fleury for having the courage to reveal not just his failings, but those things he would not talk about for so long - how, as a kid, he became a prime target for a sexual predator just by loving hockey and having a dream of playing in the NHL. How he overcame his problems to move on to a better life is truly inspiring as well.

Fleury's story is that of gaining it all, then losing it all, but finally finding a calmer and stabler self after making it through all the chaos.

Ask for "Playing with Fire" at your library.
Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Public Information and Library Resources Board, West Newfoundland-Labrador division. You can contact him at: or by phone at 634-7333.

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