Retired hockey star Theoren Fleury has at long last confirmed that he was sexually abused by his junior coach, Graham James, a trauma he says drove him to alcohol, drugs and promiscuity throughout his otherwise impressive 16-year NHL career. “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” he writes in Playing with Fire, an autobiography to be released this week, and provided in advance to Maclean’s. “[James] destroyed my belief system. The most influential adult in my life at the time was telling me that what I thought was wrong was right.
“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?”
It is an account the hockey world has long waited to hear, as Fleury’s career had been one of the most spectacularly troubled in NHL history. For years, the spark-plug forward has stone-walled questions about his time with James, even as his violent outbursts on the ice and binges off it pointed to something terrible in his past. Until the book, former Boston Bruin Sheldon Kennedy had been the only player to go public about being abused by James. He was hailed as a hero for coming forward, and said at the time one other NHL player had been abused. He did not name the player, and while speculation quickly enveloped Fleury, it died off when it became clear the player had no intention of addressing the issue.
In his book, however, Fleury lifts the lid on the entire harrowing tale, beginning when the Manitoba coach recruited him at 13 from his minor hockey team in Russell, Man., to play junior in Winnipeg. “Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years,” Fleury writes of the assaults, whose memories remain vivid to him. “An absolute nightmare, every day of my life.” James required him to sleep two nights a week at the coach’s house, rather than with the woman with whom he’d been billetted. He tried to fight off the coach at first, wrapping himself in blankets each night and pretending to sleep as James attempted to masturbate him and give him oral sex. But the fear of James’s advances left him sleepless, and exhaustion broke him down, he writes; so too did James’s frequent warnings that, without his coach’s support, he stood little chance of playing professional hockey.
Fleury, now 41, says he was particularly vulnerable to James’s psychological manipulation because had little in the way of a family support system: his father was an alcoholic and his mother was addled by prescription sedatives. James easily convinced them he was the best thing to ever happen to their son, Fleury adds, just as he had done with Kennedy’s single mother. “I had rarely seen them like this—happy,” he says. “Their boy had made it. My dad was no longer a worthless drunk and my mom drugged out and helpless.” When James’s Western Hockey League team, the Winnipeg Warriors, moved to Moose Jaw, both Fleury and Kennedy went with him. A year later, James was let go amid rumours of inappropriate behaviour and returned to Winnipeg with Kennedy in tow. He tried to convince Fleury to go with him, blandishing him and Kennedy that summer with a car trip to Disneyland. Earlier reports that Fleury had been asleep in the backseat of the car when James sexually abused Kennedy in the front during that trip were true, Fleury writes. But that wasn’t the half of it. The three stayed in motels throughout the trip, he says, and the boys would have to take turns sleeping with James. “Think about how sick that is,” Fleury writes. “When he dropped me off at my parents’ place after that trip, that was it. It was over. I was out, home free.”
Fleury says he kept the abuse a secret at the time because he was sure it would end his hockey career. “I could see how it would play. I would have been stigmatized forever as the kid who was molested by his coach. The Victim.
“Would minor hockey have said, ‘Wow, we better watch out for Theoren and protect him because he told the truth’? No. It would have been James was a pervert and Fleury ‘let him’ molest him. Or I would be the equally pervy kid who had a ‘relationship’ with his coach. Would I have been invited to the Hockey Canada camp that led to Piestany, which led to the NHL? Get real.” His refusal to come clean after James was arrested in 1997 is harder to explain. It effectively made Kennedy—his friend and teammate at the time in Calgary—the public face of the scandal (a third player who was abused while James was coach of the WHL Swift Current Broncos in the late 1980s has also remained anonymous). In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s this week, Fleury says the two addressed the issue in summer of 1997, in Arizona. “I respected his decision and Sheldon respected mine,” he says. “Secretly, I think we’ve both known that we’ve always had each others’ support. Now we go to a [12-step] meeting together every week, and that’s been a gift. I think we started repairing the relationship that night in Arizona.”
As it turned out, Fleury lived in fear throughout his pro career that the truth about he and James would come out. He quickly learned that liquor and drugs dulled his anxiety, and Playing with Fire recalls that descent in painstaking detail. He discovered alcohol at 16 and, after being drafted by the Calgary Flames in 1987, he began using marijuana and cocaine, quickly becoming, in his own words, a full-blown addict. Through all this, he was engaged in three long-term relationships, marrying twice and having four children. But as his career progressed, stripper bars became his home away from home, he says.
In New York, where he signed as a free agent with the Rangers in 1999, his addictions reached epic proportions, and he sunk to cringe-inducing depths. To flummox testers from the NHL’s substance abuse program, he would pour Gatorade into his urine samples. He even used urine from his then-infant son Beaux to fool the system. Meanwhile, his taste in company became increasingly grimy. “I didn’t hang out on the surface with your average Joe,” Fleury writes. “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.”
He also got deeply into gambling during that period. Between casinos and strip clubs—where he would drop thousands in a night on drinks and lap dances—he figures he burned through almost all of the US$50 million he was paid during his time in the NHL.
The details of this period reflect well on neither Fleury nor the NHL. By his own admission, he gave 13 dirty urine samples in a row to the NHL testers, yet was allowed to keep playing. The league finally forced him into treatment in the summer of 2001, which allowed him to compete in the 2002 Winter Games, where the Canadian men’s hockey team won a gold medal. But he soon relapsed, leaving the league for good the following year. His rock-bottom moment came in September 2005, while he played in the Allan Cup senior hockey tournament in Lloydminster, Alta. His parents had come to watch him, and after his team got knocked out of the playoff round, he got drunk and poured out his anger to his parents for leaving him with James. It was the first time, he tells Maclean’s, the family had confronted the issue directly, and his mother and father wept, telling him they were sorry. “It was important to hear that word from them,” he says in an interview. “From that day forward, I’ve been able to move on with that part of my life—the stuff with my parents.” Since then, he says, he has been clean and sober, supported by his wife Jennifer, who he was dating when he played in the Allan Cup.
It is a calmer, stabler Fleury who looks back on that period now, and after a walk-on tryout last month with his old team, the Calgary Flames, he’s made his peace with leaving the game. He has written the book, he says, in hopes of convincing any young person suffering sexual abuse to seek help. “One thing I’ve come to realize is that, without Graham James I still would have had the same career,” he tells Maclean’s. “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.”