Theo Fleury’s greatest goal: The hockey legend turns to tech to help others (like him) heal after trauma

The Fleury family had three boys, with Theo the oldest. He was small in stature but aggressive in attitude. His father and mother each had withstood their own emotional wounds as kids, leading them both into substance abuse. His dad was an alcoholic and his mother was addicted to prescription pills, he says. (Both are now sober.)
Fleury with parents Donna and Wally in 2015 as he earned an honorary doctorate from Brandon University.

“I grew up in a home that was violent, chaotic, crazy, insane,” he says. “I watched my parents’ childhood trauma fight with each other every single day.”

But the little town had a hockey rink and Fleury found the game at age 5, blending natural talent with home-grown combativeness, creating a fierce force on the ice.

As a young teen, he attended an elite hockey camp in Manitoba. One of the camp’s instructors was a pro scout, Graham James, who took instant interest in Fleury and told him he had the skills to someday make it to the NHL.

James recruited Fleury, then 15, to play for his junior hockey team in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan during the mid-1980s. In his 2009 memoir, “Playing with Fire,” Fleury revealed that James repeatedly sexually assaulted him during those years.

Fleury kept those attacks a secret because, he later explained, he feared other players would bully him and he believed the stigma would kill his NHL dream.

He reached the NHL in 1988 with the Calgary Flames, blossoming into one of the league’s most dynamic scorers. He was named an NHL All-Star by 1991.

He also was addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex, he says – all to mask the haunting pain of his younger years.

By 1996, at age 28, he was widely considered one of the game’s greats. That same year, Fleury’s junior hockey teammate, Sheldon Kennedy, then playing for the Boston Bruins, publicly revealed that James had sexually abused Kennedy as a teenager. (James later pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Kennedy, Fleury and other players. He was sentenced to multiple prison terms.)

“When Sheldon came out with his story, I thought I was doing OK. My secret nobody knew. But here it was, in front of my face again, and now I’ve got to take a look at it. I just wasn’t ready to take a look at it,” Fleury recalls.

“Because of that, my addictions became even more prevalent because I didn’t want to think about it. So the drugs, the alcohol, all those addictions, allowed me to numb out.”

They ultimately ended his NHL career. Days before the start of the 2002-2003 season, the NHL suspended Fleury for violating the terms of the league’s substance-abuse program. In April 2003, the league suspended him again for the same reason. He was 34.

Fleury, upper right, helped Team Canada win gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Getty Images.)

His dream was dead.

He became sober on Sept. 18, 2005. But it was nearly 10 more years before Fleury began to map out the contours of his deepest discoveries on healing.

That began as he worked on his second book, “Conversations with a Rattlesnake,” published in 2014 and co-authored by therapist Kim Barthel. The writing provided Fleury with four revelations on trauma that now inform his public talks and drive his own recovery.

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