Hockey hero trades career on ice for new life behind the podium


Refocused Fleury shares past troubles with new audiences; Scott Cruickshank

Always charismatic, former Calgary Flame Theo Fleury has emerged as a sought-after speaker on abuse and addiction. He gave 18 talks in March, 10 more in April.

Always charismatic, former Calgary Flame Theo Fleury has emerged as a sought-after speaker on abuse and addiction. He gave 18 talks in March, 10 more in April.

Photograph by: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald

The current model talks a great game. Then again, the old version always did, too.

But, according to buzz, a radical overhaul has taken place.

Trademark charisma still intact, this new gentleman spouts hard-earned wisdom, aims to effect change at every level of government, has disconnected his self-destruct button, is determined to carve out a do-gooder's legacy, peppers his remarks with the word "amazing."

In some quarters, the upgrade is referred to somewhat grandly as The Reinvention of Theo Fleury, a rocky road from bad apple to good egg.

Right. Sure.

Reporters, apparently, don't have a monopoly on skepticism. Chuck Matson, longtime chum of Fleury's, hears the doubts.

"People ask me all the time if it's real."


"How could it not be? Because you'd know."

For two reasons.

Because, Theo being Theo, there's no filter. If it pops into his head, he blurts it.

Because, without the National Hockey League's professional excuse-makers in play, Fleury stands alone, without a shield.

So if everyone's favourite pepper-pot was turning into a Slap Chop pitchman?

It would be glaring.

But, so far, the only thing that's obvious since Fleury mothballed his skates after the 2009 comeback attempt is his renewed popularity. His name is out there.

From the country-music album -- four tunes already in the can -- to the play, based on his life, being workshopped by Alberta Theatre Projects. A movie is possible. There's that bestselling autobiography. Maybe more books soon.

But at the core of Theo Inc. is speaking.

April, even with a week-long breather, featured 10 appearances. The previous month? He fulfilled 18 engagements. It's more than enough to make a living.

"I've heard he's getting pretty good," Matson says of Fleury's spiels. "He's passionate. And he's an unbelievably self-confident man. A new challenge, too, doing it sober."

Matson recently delivered a eulogy. Before going up, the chap beside him gave a nudge.

"He leans over and says, 'You know what Jerry Seinfeld says about eulogies? The guy giving it wishes he was in the box,' " he says, chucking. "It's so true about public speaking. I think it's the No. 1 fear. Second is death."

Trust Fleury to expose himself to both.

He takes a pass on death, despite a chilling brush with it -- gun in mouth, bent on suicide -- and embraces the act of pouring out his heart in public.

"Confession is good for the soul -- it seems like that applies here," says Matson. "I think he's got high hopes for his message. He's getting positive results. Therefore, every time it goes well . . . Theoren's an instant-gratification guy."

"Morning, everyone," says the voice, always a little deeper than you expect. "It's a real pleasure for me to be here -- or be anywhere, for that matter. I'm going to give you a little background about how my life unravelled -- could I get a little more volume, please?"

Given a life cranked to 11, that request makes sense.

To the dropped jaws of counsellors -- officially, this is the third annual Addiction Day and Street Drugs Conference and Networking Fair: The Brain and Behaviour -- Fleury, tan suit, blue shirt, no tie, unspools an hour's worth of highs and lows. And more lows.

Nuts and bolts:

- Father an alcoholic, mother a prescription-pill addict;

- Dazzles in minor hockey, overcoming arm injury;

- Introduction to Graham James, allegations of abuse;

- The welcome distraction of alcohol, drugs, high life;

- Misery despite wealth (every two weeks, $400,000 after taxes);

- Blur of rehabilitation centres, escalating gambling problems;

- Recovery, leading him to this very spot . . . the Red and White Club's stage.

Audience rapt, Fleury drops his show closer.

"My dad, he's a smart guy. He said to me one time, 'You know what, son? Tomorrow I'm going to drink, but today I'm not.' Thanks."

Yes, the arena's smaller. Sure, it's not even 9:30 in the morning. But Theoren Fleury can still get a reaction.

Standing ovation.

The day before, he'd shown up at a coffee shop looking, well, very Theo-ish -- hoodie and jeans, sunglasses propped on spiked hair, smirk in place.

"I'm flat-out busy," he'd declared, before marvelling about his recent trip to Vancouver to speak at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention. "There were 3,000 people . . . 8,000 years of sobriety in that room, from 60 years for one guy all the way down to one day. It was amazing to be in a room with that many people who were, you know, sober. I've been in a room with 3,000 drunk people -- just go down to Cowboys when the Stampede's on."

He cackles. Probably makes a mental note to slip that bit into his routine.

It was his bestselling book, Playing with Fire, that had let folks know he had a story to tell, rags to riches to rehab.

"All of a sudden," Fleury says, "the phone starts ringing off the hook -- 'Does he speak?' "

Of course, he does.

There are three versions of his sermon, but there's a wing-it feel to the delivery.

"As long as it has a beginning and a middle and an end," he says. "The message is always the same."

But Fleury does wince, recalling his first stab at a genuine front-of-the-room, cotton-mouthed knee-shaker.

"Molson Cup luncheon. I remember how nerve-racking that was, how awful I was. Just terrible. But, like everything else in my life, I'm a natural at it now."

Sounds like No. 14, doesn't it?

But does this?

When the news emerges that Graham James had received a pardon from the National Parole Board, Fleury is expected to completely lose his blob. Never happens.

He opts for a philosophical approach.


"I actually sat down and thought about the repercussions," he says, "instead of being the old Theo" -- he rotates his arms wildly -- "would have gone right in it, yelling, screaming, pissed off. But I looked at it, like, 'Wow, this is a great opportunity to get something done, to get some funding. Wow, we've got the ear of the prime minister -- maybe I can get a little tete a tete with him.' "

Friends, such as Chuck Matson and Pete Montana, don't exactly dispute the notion of Fleury's reinvention.

At the very least, it sounds positive.

"It's a reinvention in public. How's that?" says Matson, grinning and playing along.

But totally different? Not really.

"He's the same guy to me. Absolutely," says Matson, a local businessman who met Fleury during Calgary Hitmen ownership meetings in 1995. "He's just letting some of the good parts of him surpass some of the bad parts."

Montana -- who, as a radio man in Moose Jaw, first got to know Fleury more than a quarter-century ago -- applauds his pal's about-face.

"Whatever it takes for him to put the devil away and to continue to be happy," says Montana, who, like Fleury, is a victim of abuse. "I don't think he's reinvented himself as much as he's found himself. There was this guy in there all this time, this little boy, looking to try to be who he wanted to be instead of being what everyone else wants him to be.

"He's really just being himself now."

Lending possible permanence to Fleury's remaking is his distance from the NHL.

In Matson's opinion, the NHL and its teams shelter players -- to their developmental detriment. The priority is productive employees. Nothing else matters.

"They buffer the reality of the world . . . that most of us (face)," he says. "You have to live a certain way or your neighbours aren't going to put up with it, your wife is not going to put up with it . . . the hockey business takes all that away. If you're gone all night long, they explain to your wife that they sent you somewhere to, I don't know, get your neck worked on. It goes on and on."

Meaning, in Matson's estimation, this is less about reinvention, more about natural growth. "Theoren, with the hockey business, was stuck at a certain age of social maturity."

Example -- the 1999 trade to the Colorado Avalanche. The star panicked.

"Very scared," says Matson, who ended up accompanying Fleury to Denver. "You've got to remember, all these hockey players are stuck at age 14. Joe (Sakic) was there, and 20,000 screaming fans . . . but (Fleury) was alone. Very alone. He was so emotionally exposed."

When Fleury's life spiralled, loved ones had been helpless.

"All we could do," says Montana, "was watch the train wreck."

Back on the rails, the wee chap is putting his heft behind a number of endeavours -- Theo Fleury Foundation;,a support group for the abused; The Men's Project.

Not currently in therapy -- "I can honestly say that I'm in 100 per cent recovery from everything" -- Fleury got a healing boost from two and a half years of sit-downs with his co-author Kirstie McLellan Day.

"I was still angry, resentful, lots of things," he says. "By the end of the book, it was all gone. I was finally able to put that in its rightful place. And by doing that, I was able to tell you guys the truth. They have that wonderful saying -- the truth will set you free. Well, that's been my experience. I'm a free guy."

On this afternoon, Fleury is relaxed, sparkling. Telling stories, dropping f-bombs. Being Theo.

"It's amazing how simple life is," the 41-year-old says. "We always complicate it. For me, my abuse set me off on a path of some crazy, wild stuff. But it was just the way I coped with it in order to live."

Matson had described Fleury's life as the "perfect storm," where everything -- talent, money, abuse, temptation, enablers -- converged to create an unholy mess.

"The times I was driving the bus, the bus always crashed," Fleury says. "Now I'm in the passenger seat, saying, 'You know what? Whatever it is you want me to do, I'm not going to question it. I'm just going to do it.' Now that I've gotten into that headspace, my life is amazing."



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Always charismatic, former Calgary Flame Theo Fleury has emerged as a sought-after speaker on abuse and addiction. He gave 18 talks in March, 10 more in April.

Always charismatic, former Calgary Flame Theo Fleury has emerged as a sought-after speaker on abuse and addiction. He gave 18 talks in March, 10 more in April.

Photograph by: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald

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