Rogers Hometown Hockey was a hub of activity this past weekend in the Cranbrook’s downtown core as the festival took up two blocks with free family events and a chance to meet NHL alumni.
Theoren Fleury was mobbed by fans at one of the tents, posing for pictures and signing autographs throughout Saturday and Sunday and also joined Rob and Scott Niedermayer on stage for a hotstove conversation led by Tara Slone.
“It’s a nice break from what I do on a daily basis,” said Fleury, “and the fans are so important to the game and without them, there wouldn’t be an NHL and so it’s a good opportunity to get out and support the fans and also support what Scotiabank and Rogers has done.
“This Hometown Hockey thing is really a great thing for everybody.”
Sparking the Flames
Fleury was a hell of a hockey player in his heyday.
He literally had a point-a-game pace, scoring 455 goals and 1,088 points in just over a thousand games during his 12-year career in The Show.
Internationally, he donned the national jersey for the World Juniors, World Championships, Canada Cup, World Cup and the Olympics, where he won gold alongside Scott Niedermayer in 2002.
The accolades are noteworthy because he was never expected to amount to anything due to his size.
Or lack thereof.
Standing at 5’ 6”, Fleury was usually the smallest guy out on the ice, but also one of the most dangerous.
He could skate, stickhandle and shoot and was as tough and tenacious as a pitbull.
He played with no fear.
Selected in the eighth round of the 1987 NHL Entry Draft by the Calgary Flames, Fleury turned pro two years later after setting franchise scoring records with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in his rookie season after getting called up from the farm team.
Just ten years later, he surpassed Al MacInnes and became the Flames’ all-time scoring leader with his 823rd point.
His time in Calgary didn’t last and he was traded to Colorado for a brief spell before signing in New York with the Rangers as a free agent in 1999. Fleury plied his trade in the Big Apple for three years before going to Chicago, where he finished his NHL career.
Fleury’s retirement wasn’t exactly voluntary.
The NHL dropped the hammer on Fleury for violating the league’s substance abuse policy in April 2003.
After years of concealing alcohol and drug abuse, his addictions had eventually taken its toll and begun to affect his play on the ice and his relationships with family, friends and teammates.
The league suspension effectively ended his career.
Fleury attempted a comeback with the Flames in 2009 and played four exhibition games, scoring four points, however, he was eventually released by the team before the regular season began.
Starting the conversation
In 2009, Fleury published his autobiography – ‘Playing with Fire’
The revelations were shocking.
While playing junior hockey, Fleury had been sexually abused by his former coach Graham James, who had been using his position as an authority figure to prey on many other players, including Sheldon Kennedy and Todd Holt.
The book served as a catalyst for new charges against James as well as encouragement to other victims of sexual abuse to come forward.
His wrote that his addictions can be traced right back to the abuse he suffered when he was a young teenager.
The book was an instant non-fiction top-seller in Canada.
Following its release, Fleury has told his story countless times and now criss-crosses the country as a public speaker presenting to students in schools or at corporate events to talk about winning, losing and never giving up even when the obstacles appear insurmountable.
He is also involved in advocacy for mental health and trauma through the Breaking Free Foundation, which he helped create.
The purpose of the BFF is two-fold: to connect the community to resources and support for those who have experienced trauma and to make trauma healing accessible to everyone, regardless of economic status.
“It’s going amazing,” said Fleury. “We have a new documentary coming out in a few weeks, we do our walks every summer. This year we’re doing Saskatchewan and we’ve been able to help a lot of people and the people who work at our foundation are amazing people.
“It’s really starting to pick up momentum and at the end of the day, we’re helping lots of people.”
The walks — the Victor Walk — was created by Fleury in 2013 which has been recognized as a national movement and hopes to change the way Canadians understand the effects of childhood trauma.
His work with the BFF and the Victor Walks also ties in with mental health, which is a cause that Fleury is also passionate about.
More and more NHLers, NHL alumni and professional athletes have been telling their stories, struggles and triumphs over mental health. Over the past few years, the league and players have recognized the importance of addressing mental health.
Just look at what the Vancouver Canucks have done with their Mindcheck program or how everyone has embraced Bell Media’s #BellLetsTalk campaign.
“It’s all about stigma,” Fleury said. “Whether you talk about trauma, mental health or addiction or whatever it is, there’s a lot of shame attached to experiencing something like that, so as advocates, it’s our job to get rid of the stigma.
“It’s okay to ask for help and it’s essential to ask for help. I would say we’ve come a long ways, but there’s still miles and miles to go and so on a daily basis, that’s what i’m doing. I’m keeping the conversation going and along the way, picking up other people who want to have that same conversation.”
While Fleury has been busy with his advocacy work, he’s also had some time to get in touch with his creative side.
For six years, he worked with music industry professionals, which culminated in the release of a country record – ‘I am who I am’ – in October 2015.
“When I retired from hockey, I didn’t want to stay in hockey, I wanted to get as far away from the game as I could,” Fleury said. “I love music, I grew up around music, my family is musical so it was a fun project to do and it’s been fun getting out on the road and touring a bit and playing some shows.”
Fleury and his bandmates, the Death Valley Rebels, had 30 songs that were cut down to 10 for the album, which includes the single ‘My Life’s Been a Country Song’.
“I was country when country wasn’t cool,” Fleury joked. “I grew up with Buck Owens and Charlie Pride and Johnny Cash and all those guys…Wailing Willie, so those are my influences, for sure.”