In late 1996, Theoren Fleury and Sheldon Kennedy had a meeting of minds—albeit the sort that takes place over bottles of beer and lines of cocaine. Strung out and miserable, the two NHL players were in the midst of a golfing trip to Phoenix, delving into a shared secret that was about to send tremors through the sport of hockey. Kennedy had recently told police he’d been sexually abused by Graham James, a coach both had played for as juniors in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Fleury, too, had been abused by James as often as twice a week while playing for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the Western Hockey League. The story had not yet hit the press, but each knew how deeply the other had suffered. For 10 hours that night, they discussed openly experiences they’d never spoken of before.
When the session was over, however, they took separate paths. Kennedy went public, becoming the face of a sporting scandal, while Fleury maintained his silence for a dozen more years—a decision that left him a shell of a man. “Sheldon’s secret was out, so he was able to start dealing with it,” Fleury explains in a new autobiography, Playing with Fire. “Mine was not. Graham still had control of my life.” To forget, the stumpy winger from Russell, Man., threw himself headlong into booze, cocaine, womanizing and gambling. “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f–king raging, alcoholic lunatic,” he writes. “[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.”
That Fleury has published his story offers a clear indication the former Calgary Flame has at long last shucked off the Graham James death grip. His sparkling 16-year NHL career had long been dogged by rumours that he was the “other” James victim, in addition to Kennedy and a third unnamed player James had coached in Swift Current, Sask. Journalists who covered the Kennedy story (including this one) had good information suggesting Fleury had been molested, and some pressed him to acknowledge it. But over time, his behaviour did all the talking. His trademark feistiness on the ice devolved into screaming fits on the ice. Away from the rink, he was a wreck—typically drunk, often high, frequently surrounded by women who were not his wife. Clearly, he was running from something.
Fleury says his rock-bottom moment came in September 2005, after he’d been forced from the NHL for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse program. His parents had come to watch him play in a senior hockey championship tournament, and afterwards he got drunk and poured out his anger to his mother and father for leaving him with James. It was the first time, he says, 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 told Maclean’s last week 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.
It was a remarkable journey, and for hockey parents and administrators a cautionary tale. Fleury was recruited to play for James when he was 13, and moved to Winnipeg where, in his own words, “Graham was on me once or twice a week for the next two years.” The coach required him to sleep two nights a week at James’s place, rather than at the house where he’d been billeted; young Theo at first tried wrapping himself in blankets and pretending to sleep as James attempted to masturbate him and give him oral sex. But the fear of James’s nocturnal advances left him sleepless, and exhaustion broke him down.
So too did James’s frequent warnings that, without his coach’s support, he stood little chance of playing professional hockey—a gambit that worked particularly well with Fleury because he felt he had nowhere to turn. His father was an alcoholic, he says, and his mother addled by prescription sedatives. James had convinced both he was the best thing to ever happen to their son, and when James’s Western Hockey League team, the Winnipeg Warriors, moved to Moose Jaw, Fleury and Kennedy went with him. A year later, when James was let go from the Warriors amid rumours of inappropriate behaviour with players, he returned to Winnipeg with Kennedy in tow. He tried to convince Fleury to go too, lavishing him and Kennedy that summer with a car trip to Disneyland. (Earlier reports that Fleury had been asleep in the back seat of the car when James sexually abused Kennedy in the front 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 in the book.)
Fleury says he kept the abuse a secret at the time because he was sure it would end his hockey career. “I would have been stigmatized forever as the kid who was molested by his coach. The Victim,” he writes. “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.” Yet the effect of his decision to stay silent after Kennedy came forward in 1997 was to leave a friend and former teammate twisting in the wind. Last week, Fleury said Kennedy understood at the time. “I respected his decision and Sheldon respected mine,” he told Maclean’s. But he also thinks young players who come forward today would stand a chance of getting past it.
There is certainly no bad blood between Fleury and Kennedy, who attend a weekly 12-step meeting together in Calgary. “I did know deep down Theo was going to have to deal with it one way or another,” Kennedy told a Calgary newspaper last week. He now wonders whether police will take the step of charging James, who is reportedly living in the Montreal area, having served a 3 -year prison sentence for the abuse of Kennedy. (The Calgary police, RCMP and Moose Jaw police say they have not received a complaint from Fleury, but will initiate an investigation if they do.)
Other questions raised by Fleury’s book are sure to reverberate through the hockey world in the coming days. His revelation that he failed 13 drug tests in a row in 2001 while participating in the NHL’s substance abuse program leads one to wonder how far one must fall before the league steps in. Fleury, who was playing for the New York Rangers at the time, says he was adulterating some of his urine tests with Gatorade, faking others using the urine of his infant son Beaux. Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said in an email that the league couldn’t disclose details of Fleury’s treatment, but added: “I think it’s safe to say that various elements of his account of that period are not factually accurate. We believe that our program operated appropriately at all times vis-à-vis the treatment of Fleury.” The league is glad, Daly stressed, that Fleury “has reached a good place in his recovery.”
Certainly those close to Fleury seem happy that he has gotten his agony out in the open. Long-time friend Chuck Matson sees it as one step in a healing process that began when Kennedy came forward in 1996. “It’s not that he didn’t deal with it when the story broke,” says Matson. “He chose to deal with it with close friends and family. If every [abused] altar boy was guilty of wrongdoing because he didn’t talk publicly about his situation, where would we be?” Still, Fleury himself hopes his example will encourage abused youngsters to speak up, saying he needed to escape his history with James to clean up his life. “I am no longer trapped by my past,” he writes in his book. “Where is the proof? I don’t drink or gamble or mess around in my marriage like I did before. I am not running. I have stopped running.”