There’s a certain irony to Theo Fleury’s new book, Playing With Fire. He said he wrote it because he wants to help people, particularly young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, but the fact is this book should come with a “Keep out of the reach of children” label attached to it.
It is real, it is raw and it is incredibly compelling. In his effort to put everything – and we mean everything – out there, Fleury has no taboos when it comes to him being raised by an alcoholic father and a mother with an addiction to Valium, to being sexually abused by his former junior coach Graham James, to his out-of-control alcohol and drug use and his many sexual forays.
To wit, the book is 310 pages in length. A total of 167 of them, more than half, have at least one ‘F-bomb’ on them. Reading the book was like sitting there having a marathon barstool conversation with Fleury…minus the barstool.
“It’s just the way I talk,” Fleury said in an interview Wednesday morning. “That’s the way we talk. In your face? Well, it’s Theo Fleury. Of course it’s going to be in your face. I’m a regular guy who throws the F-bomb out pretty much every sentence. The book turned out exactly the way we (he and ghost writer Kirstie McLellan Day) wanted it to. It’s in my words. It’s very honest, it’s very open, it’s like ‘Whoa.’ ”
Whoa might be the least of what you’ll find yourself saying when you read this book. Fleury bares his soul in a way that perhaps no elite athlete in the history of sport ever has. The most chilling came in how he described his near suicide after leaving the NHL in 2003.
“At 2 a.m., I reached over, picked up the gun, loaded it, flipped the safety off and put the barrel in my mouth with my finger shaky on the trigger. I sat there forever, shivering so hard the barrel was bouncing off my teeth. How did it taste? It tasted lonely. Cold, lonely and black.”
Although Fleury insists his life should not be defined by how James exploited him when he was a teenager, he acknowledges in the book how he became dependent upon James and how James used that to exploit him. He said when James picked him in the second round of the Western League draft for the Moose Jaw Warriors, it was a trade-off, one, “I would take back today if I could, because it cost me my soul.”
He also goes in-depth into what effect the abuse has had on him over the years, saying, “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a (expletive) raging, alcoholic lunatic.” He describes the experience as “torture, absolute torture,” and acknowledges that, “every person I ever loved, they paid too. I (expletive) up my sexual identity big-time.”
He talks at length in the book about how he managed to skirt the NHL’s Substance Abuse Program by putting Gatorade in his samples and even once submitting his infant son’s urine sample. He refers to Dr. David Lewis, the NHL doctor for the program, as “a dickhead,” but credits the program for saving his life. Amid the cocaine use, he once inadvertently overdosed on crystal meth in 1999. “I was thinking, ‘I have finally accomplished what I have wanted to accomplish for a long time. I am going to die.’ ”
But the book certainly isn’t all dark. In fact, there are many lighthearted moments and you get the impression Fleury truly feels blessed for everything good that happened to him during his career. He also accepts everything he experienced in life has happened for a reason and that he wouldn’t be in the good place he is now – sober for four years and counting – without everything that happened. In fact, at the end of the story, he says, “I don’t regret anything. I think everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me.”
Fleury spends much of the book talking about what a bad person he once was, but he certainly takes his opportunity to speak his mind about other people in hockey. The result is incredible candor and hilarity.
On leaving the game in 2003: “I think the whole league reacted to my leaving the way you would feel after a big, happy dump.”
On Sean Avery: “He’s a clown – about as popular in the dressing room as a case of the crabs.”
On the U.S team in the 1996 World Cup: “They had cocky guys like Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte who acted like they were winners, but they weren’t.”
On Roman Hamrlik: “A gutless puke.”
On former NHL goalie Curtis Joseph: “(He’s) a fantastic guy, but he’s never really won anything. When he’s had the opportunity to be ‘the guy,’ he’s never really lived up to it. It would be the same at the (2002) Olympics.”
On Alexander Daigle: “What a beauty, that guy. He had all the tools, but no tool box to go with it. Dumb as a post – he didn’t get it.”
On former Rangers coach John Muckler: “I don’t know how guys like him keep getting jobs over and over again.”
On former Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz: “He was an old asshole.”
On European players: “If I were running an NHL team, I would draft only guys from Canadian major junior hockey. No college guys, no Europeans. My team would be all juniors. They are tough. They get it.”
So if you’re looking for a politically correct piece of reading, you might want to stay away from Playing With Fire. But if you’re looking for a remarkably candid account of one of the most tumultuous careers in NHL history, it is well worth the read.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear Wednesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.