While there’s no cheering allowed in the press box, I’ve got to admit I was hoping Theoren Fleury would get the call today telling him he was being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I know, tough sell here in the Edmonton Oilers backyard. That call didn’t come for the former nasty little so-and-so with the Calgary Flames, but I’ll settle for Fleury being healthy and happy and still here to be considered.
I had my doubts about that for many years — long before Fleury went public about the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of Graham James in his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire. Those fears were never more front-of-mind for me than after a conversation we had at Rexall Place in January of 2002 during the depths of his alcohol and drug abuse in his third season with the New York Rangers.
Try as he might to put on a brave face that morning, Theo was an unmitigated mess then. It seemed the demons born of the horrors he had endured as a player with the Moose Jaw Warriors and his boozing and drug use were getting the upper hand with his career winding down. I remember leaving the rink that morning to write a feature about Theo hoping he was going to somehow come out the other side OK but fearing he wouldn’t.
All these years later, here he is. Fleury has not only come out the other side, he’s emerged from the darkest of days to turn his life completely around. The roar of the crowd has long faded and the $50 million he made during his NHL career is gone, but Theo is clean and sober and a tireless speaker and an advocate for people struggling with sexual and substance abuse. HHOF or not, that’s the real storyline from where I sit.
Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the best women’s player of all time for my money, Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Zubov and Vaclav Nedomansky, the first player to defect to North America, got the call today. Pittsburgh Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford and Boston College coach Jerry York were inducted in the builders’ category. No Fleury, again.
I’m not sure why Fleury didn’t get the nod this year, one in which there weren’t really any slam-dunks outside of Wickenheiser, but his career speaks for itself. He won the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames and earned gold medals at the 1988 World Junior Championship, 1991 Canada Cup and 2002 Olympics. That he’s in the conversation at all and is the person he is today after what he’s been through is a testament to the human spirit.
“The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” Fleury wrote in Playing with Fire after years of refusing to acknowledge he’d been abused, along with Sheldon Kennedy and another player, by James. “I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment. And when you come down to it, that’s all a person has. Once it’s gone, how do you get it back?”
About his time in New York with his substance abuse out of control, Fleury wrote: “I didn’t hang out on the surface with your average Joe. I would go five, six, seven, eight levels below the streets of New York and party with freaks, transvestites, strippers and all kinds of shady people.”
Two years after his career screeched to a halt with Chicago, Fleury finally hit the wall. “I was in a washroom in my house, and I knew that eventually I was going to die,” he said. “I already tried suicide, I couldn’t do that, and I knew that there was just a better way of doing this, and that’s called life.” That epiphany came on Sept. 18, 2005. He hasn’t taken a drink or used drugs since then.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Fleury’s remarkable back story and the turnaround in his life aside, I think he belongs in the HHOF based on what he accomplished on the ice. I’d have Fleury in ahead of Carbonneau and Nedomansky for sure, but that’s just me, having known the fearless little forward since he was in Moose Jaw. Fans of the Oilers hated his guts, with good reason, and he theirs.
“One thing I’ve come to realize is that, without Graham James I still would have had the same career,” Fleury said. “I look back on the way I played the game, and to be honest, there were not a lot of guys as naturally talented as I was. Add in my fierce, competitive edge and all those little intangibles—that’s what made me great. It was all part of me before I met Graham James.”
So, that call from the HHOF will have to wait, if it comes at all. “I don’t like my chances,” Fleury said in a text this morning before the latest inductees were announced. He was right, it turns out. In the big picture, it matters not. Life goes on.