Theo Fleury had the muzzle of a gun in his mouth and one of two options before him.
“I loaded the gun and put it in my mouth,” he said. “I remember it rattling against my teeth and what it tasted like. Then, this random thought came into my head: ‘You never quit anything in your life; why are you quitting now?’
“I had two choices that day: was I going to die or was I going to live?”
He chose life and has become an important mental health advocate and public speaker. Tuesday, the former National Hockey League star shared his story with a group of young people in Sipekne’katik (Indian Brook).
In 2014, Fleury partnered with Kim Barthel to write Conversations with a Rattlesnake: Raw and Honest Reflections on Healing and Trauma.
He’s thrilled with the positive response to his books. Many have thanked him for sharing and tell him they’ve suffered a similar experience. He now speaks to groups about trauma, helping and healing.
“We all think we’re alone in our suffering. When I talk to people, that encourages them to talk. I’ve been speaking for almost 10 years now and it’s been incredible. Helping is healing. The more people I’ve helped, the more I’ve healed myself.”
Justice Paul, a Grade 11 student at L'nu Sipuk Kina'muokuom School, was one of the young people who heard Fleury speak.
“I can relate to a lot of his story because it’s similar to that of a lot of people here, and all over Nova Scotia,” she said. “To hear about overcoming such negative stuff, and to grow and heal, is really inspiring. I appreciate him being here.”
Fleury, who is Métis, is an honorary chief of the Siksika Nation, in Alberta. He lives in Calgary with his wife, two dogs and four children. He relaxes by playing golf, writing songs and singing with Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Rebels.
He describes himself as spiritual and values the power of forgiveness.
“I don’t feel any anger connected with abuse,” he said. “Part of healing is that you have to get to forgiveness at some point. If you don’t, you remain angry and resentful.”
The workshop in Sipekne’katik was sponsored by the RCMP Foundation and was offered in partnership with the Sipekne'katik Education Department and L'nu Sipuk Kina'muokuom School, Sipeknekatik Family and Community Resources and the Nova Scotia RCMP’s Community, Indigenous and Diversity Policing Services.
For more information on Fleury, visit his website at https://www.theofleury.life/
24 hours at a time
At the height of his success in hockey, Theo Fleury was with the Calgary Flames. They won the 1988-89 Stanley Cup and he went on to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics.
But he remained quiet about his past. It wasn’t until he left the sport and wrote Playing with Fire, collaborating with Kirstie McLellan Day, that he disclosed his story.
“When I sat down to write the book I only planned to write about my hockey career, but I told the whole story,” he said. “I was scared because I didn’t know how people would react.”
Fleury grew up in a home with an alcoholic father and a mother addicted to prescription drugs. He often came between his parents to keep them from fighting.
Sober almost 5,000 days
As a young hockey player, he met Graham James, a coach.
“He basically promised me a one-way ticket to the NHL and over a two-and-a-half-year period he raped me 15 times,” he said. “What I was left with was a lot of shame, a lot of guilt, a lot of anger and a lot of resentment – and there wasn’t one person I could have told.”
He said he became an alcoholic the first time he tried alcohol and went on to use drugs.
“I used it to cope with the emotional pain and scars that were left behind from my experience as a child and an adolescent. I would drink enough so that I would pass out and sleep.
“In 2003, I was kicked out of the NHL because I couldn’t stop drinking and using drugs, and my behaviour was out of control.”
He was living in New Mexico when he went to a pawn shop and handed over a stack of bills for a gun and ammunition.
When he decided he wanted to live, he sold his house and moved to Calgary, where he would have the support of family and former teammates.
“I went to my first treatment centre in 1999 but I had many relapses,” he said. “I don’t pick up that first drink now because I could have another relapse in me, but I don’t have another recovery.
“I’ve been sober since Sept. 18, 2005 – almost 5,000 days. I don’t talk about it in years because it’s just 24 hours at a time, and I work as hard on my recovery as I did playing in the NHL. I always say I’m a work in progress.”