The soundtrack of Theoren Fleury's life always featured country music – old country, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, Hank Snow, that era of country. They were hurtin' songs, most of them, and for a lot of the years Fleury was listening, he was hurting, too.
Sexually abused by his junior hockey coach, with a father who drank and a mother addicted to prescription painkillers, Fleury spent a good part of his NHL career playing in a haze of alcohol and drugs. His life descended into a spiral that eventually had him contemplating suicide.
But ultimately, Fleury survived the experience and lived to tell the tale – except now he's telling it in words and music.
Yes, hockey's pint-sized star and advocate for victims of sexual abuse is now immersed in the third act of his life – budding country singer.
My Life's Been A Country Song is the title track of Fleury's first single on an album entitled I Am Who I Am that will be released Oct. 23. A cross-Canada tour is on tap for the early part of 2016 for Fleury and his band, the Death Valley Rebels.
A life filled with bizarre twists and turns has reached another momentous fork in the road, with Fleury now reaching an audience, wearing cowboy boots instead of skates and a hockey sweater.
"Music was definitely a coping thing for me," Fleury said in a lengthy interview at OCL Studios, where he sat across from one of his songwriting partners, Paddy McCallion. "When Johnny Cash sang that song Hurt, the first time I heard it, I was like, 'Holy crap, he's singing about my life.'
"So, yeah, my life is a country song because it's just been pain after pain after pain, right? To be honest, this whole comeback in life is because I was completely exhausted from living in emotional pain for most of my life. I'm thinking, 'There's got to be a better way of doing this, and it's not by sticking a gun in my mouth.' It's going through the experience of figuring things out, so I can have some peace and happiness in my life.
"And along the way, little did I know so many others were going through the same thing. When I showed up in Calgary in 1989, you had no clue that was part of my history, right?"
It's true that Fleury presented a carefully crafted image to the public at the beginning of his NHL career. He was a 5-foot-7 fireball in an era when only a few hardy souls could play as a position player in the NHL at 5 foot 7.
He was a scrapper, someone who wore his heart on his sleeve on every shift, battled for every inch of ice, hurled himself against massively bigger opponents, all the while having a skill set and scoring touch that – against long odds – allowed him to have a successful NHL career and earn tens of millions of dollars, most of which he frittered away.
But as he writes in Sick As Your Secrets, it was all a smokescreen, in which he tried to keep the hidden parts of his life hidden:
No one really knew me, no one ever asked,Because I'd leave the house behind a mask,All the expectations, all became too much,So I turned to darker things for a crutch."I often tell this story," Fleury began. "I would walk into the Saddledome at 9 a.m. and the first guy I would see is [coach] Brian Sutter. He's already been to Sylvan Lake, milked the cows and now he's back at work and he's all fired up and he punches you in the arm and he says, 'Are you ready to play?' and it's nine in the morning and I'd say, 'No, I'll be ready at seven.'
"Or he would come up to me and say, 'How are you feeling?' Can you imagine if I'd said, 'Coach, I'm really sad tonight'? Can you imagine the reaction I would have got? That's why I say, when I left the house, I had to put on this mask; that my life was good and everything on the ice was good. Then you'd go and see me play and I'd take two misconducts, and I'm yelling at the ref and doing stupid stuff. That's where you'd see me acting out. But on the outside, it looks like I'm together and everything's okay."
In 2009, Fleury published a tell-all memoir called Playing With Fire, his second attempt at his life story – and this time, it wasn't a sepia-toned fairy tale. Instead, he revealed that his life really wasn't okay.
The book outlined in graphic, wrenching detail the years of abuse at the hands of Graham James, his former junior coach, and all of the ways he'd tried to cope with those experiences over the years.
Fleury took multiple stabs at rehab, was in and out of a succession of relationships and eventually found a therapist who helped him get clean and sober for good, not just for short periods of time.
And percolating in the background was the idea that his message could help others cope with similar experiences.
Six years ago, he began a collaboration with Winnipeg musician Phil Deschambault that produced a dozen or so titles and convinced Fleury to keep at it.
More recently, he began to work with McCallion, an Irish-born, Calgary-based guitar player, who was also one of his drinking buddies back in the day. Fleury and McCallion co-wrote six of the 10 tracks on the new album – most of them the darker, more troubling titles.
"Me and Phil are two different types of writers," McCallion explained. "When you hear his songs, they're a little more poppy than mine. I'm the one that dragged Theo out of coke dens at 4:30 in the morning – or vice versa. I was there, so I know where his head is. That's why our songs are darker. But we call them Disney songs because they may start off dark, but then there's hope and then at the end, you've got it; we're all good again.
"It's truly been a healing experience – very cathartic for both of us."
In their partnership, McCallion writes the melodies. When it comes time to flesh out the lyrics, Fleury provides the ideas and then McCallion distills those thoughts into a few concise stanzas, discarding what doesn't feel real.
"We'll go back and forth and then I'll come up with something like, 'Walk the streets all night' and Theo will say, 'There, that's the fit.'"
The line McCallion references comes in Santa Fe Kinda Day, a song that Fleury says addresses "the darkest point in my life. I went there basically to die. Nobody knew who I was.
"I was living in the middle of the desert, having these psychotic episodes because I was up for days on end, doing huge amounts of cocaine.
"My bedroom was on the second level of the house and when I walked out on the deck, I could see Roswell, New Mexico. I could see the spaceships land and take off – or so I thought.
"Or I'd have a wonderful conversation with a couple of cactuses in my backyard. That's where I was. I would just walk for hours because I couldn't sleep. I often say, it was 27 years I couldn't sleep because I was molested in a dark room. That's where the inspiration to write all these songs came from – from those experiences."
Even though the songs are about Fleury's life, there isn't a single reference to hockey in any of the lyrics. Fleury, who is 60th on the NHL's all-time points scoring list, says the omission is deliberate, believing too many of his former peers never properly get past their glory (playing) days.
"So many guys are still defined by this hockey thing. That's who they think they are, and it keeps you stuck in that place," Fleury said. "Well, it's over with. Everything I learned, I learned from the game of hockey. But let's take that and transfer it into something meaningful.
"I couldn't be a coach. I would be a loony tunes coach. I just never saw myself in that position. But I'm still a huge fan. I'm still watching games. Charity stuff, I'll do it all day long, but to physically get up and skate at 10 o'clock at the Calgary Flames' rinks? No. Not going to happen. You know me. I hated working out and I hated practice, but if you threw a puck on the ice and put 20,000 people in the building, I'll give you everything I've got.
"There have been lots of things that happened, where I still need to work out the resentment I have toward the game and some of the people in the game."
But when Fleury is asked about that resentment and who might have let him down, he answers: "Nobody let me down. I let myself down. Al Coates tried to help me. Gary Roberts tried to help me. There were lots of times we sat across from each other and I cried – just because of how much he cared. Coatesy was the same way.
"Even Slats [New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather] tried to help. I just wasn't ready to be helped. That was the problem."
When asked about his expectations for this project, Fleury replied: "Zero. This is a spiritual journey that I've been on for the last 10 years. I've been to 125 First Nations communities and it is those people who've given me my life back spiritually. I don't believe in God. I don't believe in any of that stuff. I believe in Mother Earth and connecting with people on a spiritual level and I found a group of musicians who share the same beliefs.
"I often say I got out of the driver's seat. Now I sit comfortably in the passenger's seat and I don't question anything. Music was just there to help."
Fleury has worked with a vocal coach to improve his breathing and range and assesses his own voice as "decent."
"I didn't wake up one morning six or seven years ago and say, 'I'm going to start singing country music.' This has been a lot of hard work and dedication and surrounding myself with great people from the music industry who know what they're doing.
"Like my hockey career, I'm the first guy at rehearsals. I'm never late. I'm taking it seriously, because if you're going to do something, don't do it half-assed. If you do it half-assed, then people have something to criticize you for. But if you're putting in the work, things will work out the way they're supposed to."
No venues have been selected for the upcoming tour and Fleury has made it clear he doesn't want to play bars.
Instead, the show will be promoted as an evening with Theo Fleury, a chance to listen to his music, but also to interact with him in the middle of the show.
"When we play a show," McCallion said, "all these people will come up to Theo right after and say, 'That song? That's me.' And then it starts clicking with the guys in the band – 'Oh, this is why we're doing it.' It's not about a paycheque. It's not about a gold record. If it just helps that one guy …
"Theo will tell him, 'If that song works for you, then you take it.' We're not trying to knock anybody off the charts here. It's just a continuation of what he was saying in Playing With Fire. I don't think he said everything he wanted to in the book."
Fleury agrees with that assessment, noting, "Those times, sitting beside my grandfather on the porch, listening to him play Métis fiddle tunes – Whisky Before Breakfast, Orange Blossom Special – those were my first memories of music and that was back when I belonged somewhere. I had peace in my life. Then I go on this crazy wild journey of my life and I'm trying to get back to that place, right?
"Because that's really it – we're all just trying to get home. That's where we all had moments of peace and clarity in our childhood and that's where we go to try and get that feeling back."