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Fleury Shoots for New Goals
Theoren Fleury, one of Calgary’s best hockey players, struggled with addiction that nearly ended his life. He focuses now on scoring points with the Man Upstairs.

He holds the NHL individual record for most short-handed goals in one game, is a five-time All Star, won the Olympic Gold in 2002 and is considered one of Calgary’s best hockey players of all time. Yet after years of struggling with addiction which nearly ended his life, a retired Theoren Fleury is now focused on scoring points with the Man Upstairs.

Theoren Fleury

A Metis descendent, Theoren – named by his mother after a character in the children’s classic Old Yeller – was born in 1968 in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, and raised in Russell, Manitoba. Initially regarded as too small to compete in the NHL, Fleury proved speculators wrong. After being drafted by the Calgary Flames 166th overall in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, the five-foot-six, 180-pound right-winger proved that size isn’t everything. He could hit, fight and grind as well as anyone, in addition to having speed and play-making ability.

Despite playing for a variety of teams, Fleury will always be remembered as a Flame. A member of the 1989 Stanley Cup Champion Calgary Flames, Fleury tallied 31 goals and 35 assists in his first season with the Flames. In total, Fleury earned two 100 point seasons, one 50+ goal season and three 40+ goal seasons with the Flames. By the time he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche (because Calgary could no longer afford to pay him), Fleury was the last remaining Flame on the roster of their 1989 Stanley Cup winning team, and held numerous records. Since his departure, Fleury’s “number 14” remains untouched, and there’s talk of it being retired.

While finding success with the Avalanche in 1998, Fleury wasn’t re-signed and so landed a spot on the New York Rangers on July 5, 1999. Then, after three seasons with the Rangers, Fleury joined the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2002-03 NHL season.

By this point, however, Fleury’s off-ice habits were beginning to surface. Having grown up in a home with two eccentric parents, Fleury had a difficult upbringing. His mother, Donna, developed an addiction to Valium, and his father, Wally, who drove the icemaker at the local rink, was known for hitting the taverns and then barging into his son’s dressing room after games, singing Fleury’s praises.

“I started drinking when I was 16, and by the time I was 17 I was full into it,” Fleury tells me over the phone. “Alcohol was like medicine.”

A loner for much of his life, Fleury learned to escape the pressures of fame and success by turning to his two drugs of choice: alcohol and cocaine. “There’s a lot of pressure that goes along with being a professional athlete. I grew up in a small community so when you live in a city like New York that never shuts down, it’s 24 hours of fun all the time.

He continues, “The NHL isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s not all glamour and fame – people don’t see the sacrifices your family has to make, the hotels and the bus… I owe everything to hockey, everything I have is from hockey, but there’s a heavy price to be paid for choosing that profession.”

For years, Fleury says, he was in denial about his addictions. Meanwhile, his father underwent a cancer operation, and Fleury was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 1996.

One year later, Fleury says, he admitted he had a problem. “It was affecting my relationships: my on-ice performance, family, all that kind of stuff.”

Despite a brief clean spell in which he won an Olympic Gold medal, Fleury soon suffered a relapse and was suspended for six months, in October of 2002. At this point he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where things climaxed for the father of two boys and one girl.

“I had a fully loaded pistol in my hand, and was high on cocaine… I didn’t see any way out.” The only reason he’s still here, Fleury says, is because he was “too chicken” to pull the trigger. This incident forced Fleury to face the morbid reality of his situation. “I didn’t want help in the beginning,” he says. “I got help because I was going to die if I didn’t.”

He proceeded to check into the NHL Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program, and began the 2002-03 NHL season serving out a 25-game suspension. Despite being ultimately suspended for violations of the program in 2003, it was during this time, Fleury says, that the healing process truly began.

Following his suspension, Fleury’s eldest son called him from Calgary, asking him to come home. “We moved in together,” he relates. “I drank for another 18 months, but then I had one of those so-called spiritual awakenings, and started on the road to recovery.”

Growing up in a Roman Catholic/Jehovah’s Witness household, the 39-year-old says his take on religion “was somewhat skewed.”

While God was a ‘constant’ presence in his life growing up, Fleury says he was very angry with Him.

“…It’s about prayer and meditation every day, and having a conscious contact with God.”

“I knew God, but I never sought Him out. I blamed Him for a lot of what was going on. Then one day I woke up and, well, they talk about it in the 12 Step Program, that you have a spiritual awakening that takes away the need to drink, and that’s what happened to me – a miracle.”

Despite attempts to restore his career by joining the North Peace Hockey League’s Horse Lake Thunder in Alberta, and then playing with the Belfast Giants of the British Elite Ice Hockey League in 2005-06, Fleury would never play in the NHL again. Yet that no longer matters to him.

As the owner of Fleury’s Concrete Coatings in Calgary, Alberta, Fleury has discovered new meaning in life – and a new wife, Jennifer, who has been his spiritual mentor for the past three years. “She saved my life,” he says.

Together, they seek God on a daily basis. “We believe there’s Somebody out there that’s governing what’s going on. It’s about prayer and meditation every day, and having a conscious contact with God.

“He gives meaning to my life. He’s taken away the obsession to drink and helps me live life on life’s terms, without having to self-medicate to deal with problems. Before, I never dealt with anything; I drank. I wasn’t present. I’m a lot more present now than I’ve ever been.”

In addition to finding a heavenly father, Fleury has made amends with his biological one, who’s been sober now for 25 years. “I have a strong relationship with him. Family is about healing… it’s now a priority in my life.”

Fittingly enough, Fleury’s company, which he runs with his wife, two brothers, cousin, and sister in law, bears the slogan: “A rock solid family business.”

On their website, under Theo’s name, it says “He hopes he can set a personal example for others to overcome their struggles with addictions to find success and happiness, as he has been able to do.”

After being sober for more than two years, he’s certainly well on his way.

In spite of the hardships he’s faced, Fleury says, “I don’t regret anything because I wouldn’t be here right now. I wouldn’t change one thing in my life.”

When asked if he wishes to give any advice to Fleury-fans, he pauses, then says thoughtfully, “I think if you’re struggling and you’re stuck in a hole or a rut, there’s tons of help out there. If you want it and need it, it’s there and it’s available… and, if you’re afraid of letting people who you are and you’re afraid they might judge you, then you’re seeking help in the wrong people. Every day I pray, and I get strength when I’m tempted; prayer works.”

Fleury is proof that life offers up more than one chance to shine. The key to success? To shoot for the gold: “I strive to be the best person I can be on a daily basis.”

Emily Wierenga is an author based in Blyth, Ontario. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.

Originally published in Canadian Sports Magazine, May 2008.




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