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Former NHL star Theo Fleury, shown Oct. 13, 2010. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Former NHL star Theo Fleury, shown Oct. 13, 2010. (FERNANDO MORALES/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Theo Fleury looks to second career - helping others Add to ...

Theo Fleury has come a long way.

The former NHL star has seemingly escaped the chokehold of addiction and now wears a smile on his face. His mission today is to help others escape their emotional pain.

Fleury chronicles his spiritual journey in a new book called Conversations With a Rattlesnake, co-written with therapist Kim Barthel.

“Helping is healing” is a key theme.

“It’s my purpose,” Fleury writes. “I honestly believe it’s more important than my hockey career. I was put on this earth to help.”

Fleury calls Barthel the “Wayne Gretzky of therapy.” She says Fleury’s intellectual capacity is “pretty extraordinary,” shown by his ability to take in information, assimilate it and act on it.

Now 46, Fleury still sees himself as a work in progress. But his life journey is no longer two steps forward, one step back.

“It’s only a half-a-step back now or a quarter step back,” Fleury said in a recent interview. “Because I have tools.”

“Nice,” interjected Barthel.

“Whereas before I didn’t have any tools,” Fleury continued. “I reached in my toolbox and I couldn’t even build a square box ... because I didn’t have anything. Now I have a few screws, a screwdriver. So I can build some stuff.”

The exchange, in the restaurant of a downtown hotel, reads like an excerpt from Conversations With a Rattlesnake.

The book is written in the form of an extended conversation between Fleury and his therapist. It’s the product of “two and a half years of constant conversation,” according to Barthel.

“The difficulty was I couldn’t keep up with Theo,” she said. “He would change so fast, that all of the transcripts from the recordings, they were way out of date by the time I would get to them.

“In essence everything got written in about four months. But the transformational process was over a two-and-a-half year conversation — daily conversation.”

Barthel, who now teaches therapists, says it is not traditional therapy — if for no other reason that no one would have as much access to a therapist as Fleury did. It was also a collaborative, rather than a patient-therapist, relationship.

Fleury evolved over the months, with the first 18 months leading up to the real meat of the discussion.

The book comes in a challenging format. But the give-and-take between the two does show movement and how they reached their conclusions. It’s like being a silent partner in a marathon self-help session.

Chapter titles include “It’s Not My Fault,” “What We Say is More Than Words,” “Relentless Positivity,” “Shame Revisits” and “Walk With Thousands.”

It’s the kind of book that will be well-worn, with more than a few highlighted passages, for some readers.

“We can all be a conduit for healing,” said Fleury.

He has proved to be just that. Barthel says people seem drawn to the former hockey player by his honesty and vulnerability, reasoning that if he can change his life so can they.

“It’s actually miraculous,” she said. “I haven’t really got enough adjectives to describe it.”

People approach Fleury everywhere. “He can’t even go to the bathroom,” said Barthel.

“We have had some incredible moments of reveals,” said Fleury. “It would just warm your heart that people look to you as somebody who’s safe.”

Fleury, who has no complaints about being a people magnet, says part of his success is that people understand he is on their side. They know he not going to judge them or use their “deepest darkest secrets” against them.

And he understands that part of helping others is not interjecting yourself.

“You’re just holding the space which allows them to talk about these things that have happened to them in their life,” said Fleury. “They don’t want comments. If they want, they’ll ask. They’ll ask for what they want. But you don’t provide anything other than ‘I’m just going to hold the space for you.“’

“And occasionally asking the right question,” adds Barthel.

Barthel has her own rule of rule of thumb — not to offer advice unless someone asks three times.

Fleury’s autobiography, Playing with Fire, co-written by Kirstie McLellan Day, was released in 2009. An HBO Canada documentary, Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire, came out in 2012.

Both detail his life spiral. The bleak image of Fleury standing outside a Chicago crackhouse he used to frequent is hard to forget.

The two faces of Fleury are captured on the cover photo of Conversations With a Rattlesnake.

There’s the black-and-white shot of Fleury from the past, his face covered with an unhealthy sheen of sweat. And next to it, a colour shot of a smiling Fleury today.

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