He starred on the ice for Canada during the 1996 World Cup and now, some two decades later, Theo Fleury is back, still front and centre, albeit performing on a far different stage.
Instead of carrying a hockey stick, Fleury will wield a microphone Saturday, when he and his band, the Death Valley Rebels, perform at the World Cup of Hockey Fan Village, in advance of the tournament opener between Europe and the United States.
Fleury is a country and western singer now. And even though he is accustomed to working an audience, and was never much affected by stage fright, Fleury will tell you: His current occupation presents a far greater challenge than the days when he was a high-end NHL goal scorer, and paved the way for a younger generation of small, but talented players to follow in his footsteps.
“I don’t think there’s anything more vulnerable than standing in front of an audience and singing your own material,” Fleury says in a long telephone interview from Vernon, B.C., where he was speaking at three local high schools about his experiences as a victim of sexual abuse.
“But I really wanted to move away from Theo Fleury, Stanley Cup and Olympic champion because I’ve found a greater purpose in my life. Obviously, music has been a huge part of my healing process. The songs are all about helping other people find their own voices. Finding your own voice is one of the most incredible things that can happen to you – finding that courage and strength to be able to come out and tell your own story.”
It took Fleury a long time to get to that point – revealing the details of how he was sexually abused as a junior hockey player – which is why he is so passionate about it now.
Professionally, it was a good week for Fleury. His band was approached by a U.S. concert promoter, interested in working with them and perhaps introducing them to a larger audience.
But personally, it proved challenging. He had to absorb the news that Graham James, his abuser, had been granted parole by the Parole Board of Canada. Fleury repudiated the decision in a strongly worded response, reiterating his frustration at a system he believes is weak on the crime and once again calling Canada a “Disneyland for pedophiles.”
Fleury reminded me: It was 20 years ago – right around the time of the 1996 World Cup – that his former Calgary Flames teammate Sheldon Kennedy first came forward and revealed that he’d been sexually abused as a junior hockey player by James. Kennedy also suggested at the time that at least one other prominent NHL player had suffered the same fate.
Many connected the dots and concluded that player likely had to be Fleury.
But Fleury wasn’t ready yet to acknowledge what had happened, and it left him in a quandary, publicly dodging questions about the matter, while trying to sort it all out in his head. Eventually, it became too much to bear. His life spiralled into chaos; he pondered suicide; and only in time, after years of trying, he found a therapist that he connected with and was able to get his life back on course.
Nowadays, Fleury spends most of his time counselling others who endured similar experiences.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think I was meant to be a hockey player,” says Fleury now. “It was a phase in my life to get me to this point, to find the real purpose, which is helping other people get better – and by doing so, I’m also helping myself. I couldn’t grasp onto that concept in ’96 because I wasn’t mature enough. I was living in my trauma.
“But that time was the start of my downfall. For eight months, people were asking, almost every day, if I was the other guy and I basically had to say no comment. It was a difficult time. I don’t call it ‘addiction,’ but I got heavier into the coping phase of my life. I added the hard drugs into my repertoire and it wasn’t good. Even though the World Cup tournament was amazing and awesome, after that, things were not a lot of fun.”
Fleury is touring in support of his album and the single is aptly named: My Life’s Been A Country Song.
“Just as when I came into hockey, as an underdog, I’m in the same place,” he said. “I’ve got to start right at the bottom and gain credibility and respect. But that’s what I love about this.”
As for hockey, Fleury is now just a fan – and like a lot of fans, wants to see how Team North America, the collection of under-24 NHL talent, fares against older, more experienced competition. In 1996, he played on the same line as Steve Yzerman and Rod Brind’Amour and scored four goals and six points in eight games, third on the team behind Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey.
But Canada ultimately lost the tournament final to the United States, which set off a lot of national hand-wringing about the state of the game, something that remains a source of frustration to Fleury.
“It was one of those tournaments that at the end was really disappointing for all of us, but how it was blown up – that hockey in Canada is in trouble – was wrong,” Fleury says. “We lost because Mike Richter stood on his head. It was that simple. We just didn’t score. And when they got their opportunities they did.
“I know this is a made-for-TV making thing for the NHL and the players’ association, but some of the greatest hockey ever played has been in the Canada Cups and the World Cups. Everybody has caught up. Watching what the North American team has done in the first few games, and how that Canada-U.S rivalry is heating up, it shows there are some great rivalries in international hockey. There’s lots of drama, lots of stories. It’s going to be a great tournament.”Report Typo/Error