Back in the days of the Original Six, when an NHL star wanted his story told, he’d turn to Stan Fischler, the crusty New York sportswriter with more than 90 books to his credit. Today, however, it’s a Calgary mother of five who’s the top draft pick for co-writing hockey tell-alls.
Kirstie McClellan Day’s hat trick of bestsellers – Theoren Fleury’s Playing with Fire (2009), Bob Probert’s Tough Guy (2010) and Ron MacLean’s Cornered (2011) – not only breaks down gender stereotypes about women and hockey, but has pushed the Canadian sports biography beyond the Young Adult section and on to adult must-read lists. “ Cornered would easily have been No. 1 for the entire fall, if it wasn't for Steve Jobs,” said Jim Gifford, Day’s editor at HarperCollins Canada. “ Playing with Fire went right to No. 1 … and it keeps popping up.”
This month, the stage adaptation of Playing with Fire had its world premiere at Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary, where the feisty Fleury won a Stanley Cup for the Flames. Once again, it was the unlikely Day who was tapped to adapt Fleury’s brutally honest account of his tumultuous NHL career, as well the sexual abuse he was subjected to by his junior hockey coach, Graham James, for the stage. She might be a veteran celebrity interviewer, as well as the CEO of Pyramid Productions (whose television clients include A&E, PBS, Slice and TVtropolis), but she’s a rookie when it comes to the demands of the theatre.
How did you become the go-to gal for hockey autobiographies?
I don’t think of myself as a hockey writer. I write people stories, set in the world of hockey. It’s a world that has not traditionally been open to women, and peeking behind the curtains is a real thrill.
The perception that the NHL gives out is that we’re dealing with a bunch of professional athletes who are young gentlemen, choirboys. And it’s true – they are exceptional athletes. But the NHL is not full of choirboys. These are guys who live on the edge. They’ve got money, they’re got fame, they’ve got exceptional ability and they live as hard as they play on the ice. Which is not to say they don’t have strong beliefs or weren’t faithful to their families, but the boys on the bus had a hell of a good time. And that’s a time I love to hear about.
But it must have been very different to help Theoren Fleury open up about being abused after years of denial.
The key to getting the story is just asking the question. And I think most of us are afraid to come out and say, “So, tell me about Graham James abusing you.” And he told me – he was very matter-of-fact about it because he’d dealt with it. I was more emotional than he was, thinking about what if he had been one of my kids.
Then I followed up on his answers. It’s about being able to talk frankly with people. If it’s going to be a tell-all, it’s a tell all.
Do you think it helped that you’re a mom? Was it like a nurse asking personal questions?
If you ask someone directly and you don’t feel nervous or shy about it, they reach a certain level of comfort. When we first sat down together, Theoren told me he was thinking, am I really going to trust her? It’s very important to go into the project with the understanding that they have control – it’s their story. At the end of the day, if there’s something they don’t want in there, I’m not going to put it in.
What makes a good subject for a biography or, as in the case of Playing with Fire, someone that can then become the basis for a one-man play or a documentary?
A strong voice and a big personality. Everyone has an interesting story, but will anyone want to read about it? You have to choose somebody people are really interested in. Ron (MacLean), for example, is a total rebel. He doesn’t say anything so that you’ll like him. He doesn’t say things to be politically correct. He is 100-per-cent honest. It’s a lovely, loveable childlike quality.
Once you’ve found that big personality, what comes next?
The voice. If you can hear me, I’ve failed. I liken it to the FBI agents in Criminal Minds – you have to get that person’s voice in your head. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve only written about people with very strong voices. When I was writing about Theoren, I’d be driving along and thinking, I’m (expletive) starved, I need an (expletive) hamburger. I’d replaced my own thoughts with his.
To this day, my kids give me hell for his language.
It must have been an advantage that when you tried to bring him to life on the stage, Fleury wasn’t a character. You had actually been him in some ways. What does the world look like through his eyes?
It’s very chaotic. He sees the world through a great deal of mistrust and trouble. Why would he trust anyone? He was burned so badly as a kid.
What’s been the most interesting thing about writing your first play?
Watching the words that I’d written delivered with a new interpretation. There’s a moment we wrote about when Theo was out of rehab and playing in New York. (Rangers coach) Glen Sather had called and said, “I know what that (expletive) Graham James did to you. Some people think you can’t do it, but I want you to go home and get yourself in the best shape of your life.” So Theo went to Sicamous and built a gym.
Shaun Smyth (who plays Fleury in the play) lights a cigarette and grabs a coffee, turns up Celine Dion and starts working out. The way (director) Ron Jenkins showed this happening was brilliant and gave it a whole new dimension. I almost had to leave the rehearsal; I didn’t realize how theatrical that moment could be.
Also, in the theatre, they don’t edit. If they feel you’re getting at the truth, they let you do it.… The book took 20 drafts. In the first one, there were 1,800 expletives. [My editor]Jim Gifford wrote back and said, please, can you cut them at least in half?
Fleury filed an injunction to stop the documentary your company produced about his life from being screened last fall at the Calgary International Film Festival. It was screened as part of the Hot Docs festival in Toronto recently, however, so the situation must have been resolved. What happened?
He saw the film, and tweeted, “Move over @Oprah I just saw the rough cut of my documentary. It was awesome. See you at the Oscars.” He wanted to be re-interviewed, and we added that. Then he brought an entourage to see the film, which was very much the same film he’d tweeted about. He watched it, gave me a hug and we were good. A couple of hours later he wanted to file an injunction against the film. It might have been a financial consideration. (The contract between Fleury and Pyramid Productions specified that he would be paid $30,000 for his participation.) We went to court, and the judge decided in our favour. They felt that it was very clear that we had adhered to the contract and he asked Theoren to pay the court costs.
To this day I don’t know what the problem was. I know the film looks good on him. I know he’s a hero and the film emphasizes that and his good work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.