Former NHL great Theo Fleury is a seven-time All-Star, Stanley Cup Champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist. On the ice, he had numerous successes. Off the ice, he battled addiction. In his 2009 best-selling autobiography, Playing with Fire, Fleury opened up about the sexual abuse he experienced as a teen leading to his struggle with addiction and mental health.

The truly remarkable part is that he didn’t end up crumbling under this massive adversity. He took the opportunity to take on new challenges and reinvent himself. He now speaks all over North America and tries to inspire leadership, teamwork and resilience. An agent of change, he also works with different organizations and community groups to support people trying to overcome trauma, mental health and addiction. His efforts have landed him a Canadian Humanitarian Award and the Queen’s Jubilee Medallion.

We spoke with Fleury about lessons he’s learned, battling adversity, embracing change, community and more.

GO MAGAZINE: What are some of the best lessons you learned from playing hockey and how do you still use these things in your life today?

THEO FLEURY: Everything I have I received from the game of hockey. The three biggest lessons that I’ve learned are respect, the importance of loving and caring for your teammates and the third is consequences and that we’re all responsible for our actions and our decisions.

With your Playing with Fire book you took your own tragic experience of childhood sexual abuse and exposed it publicly at a time where a lot of sports figures would not have come forward. You were also able to use it as a vehicle to help others. Can you tell us a bit about that journey and any revelations you had along the way?

I really had no idea why I wrote the book other than I wanted to get some things off my chest and maybe expose the truth of my story. But from that, I found the true purpose for my life. I got completely run over by people after I told my story, and I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of sexual abuse and the impact that it has on people, society, family, friendships and relationships.

You’ve said before that the best way to overcome adversity caused by mental illness, addiction and abuse is to gather people and communities together and talk about it until it becomes a ripple effect.

Lots of people have lots of different theories about how to deal with trauma, mental health and addiction. But for me, the simplest way of dealing with any one of those issues is through community. We have a foundation here in Calgary called Breaking Free Foundation and we run two programs based on trauma, mental health and addiction. We’ve actually saved five people from committing suicide with a real simple program which is basically a community that helps people connect and be with one another.

I’ve been around this subject for 10 years now, and the more I travel and meet people, and the more we do events and talks I see how important these human connections and different communities are. I’ve been a part of some amazing conversations in big groups that have tremendously helped a lot of people.

What advice do you have for anyone trying to overcome any type of adversity in their personal or professional life?

I’m an agent of change and encourage people to put a voice to their pain and suffering. When I put a voice to my pain and suffering, that’s when I found freedom and that’s when I found other people who have experienced the same thing as me. I always tell people to never give up and to surround themselves with good people. I know those things are cliché, but they’re true.

You possess a remarkable ability to keep reinventing yourself and taking on new challenges as an author, motivational speaker and with all your philanthropic work. Why is it important for you to keep moving forward and continuing to take on new projects?

I do the very best that I can one day at a time. I try to live in the present as much as I can and when I do that, I have less fear and less anxiety. I get less depressed when I’m focused on trying to live moment by moment.

When the universe presents opportunities for reinvention, I take them. I think we all need to reinvent ourselves over and over again because as we grow and learn, we need to try different things. This is what helps us move forward and grow.

When you’re living moment by moment and taking opportunities that are given to you, does that make it easier to embrace change?

There’s no question. And when I do have challenges now, I realize that they’re being presented to me because I need to grow. I need to continue to get better. And so instead of looking at them as burdens I look at them as these amazing opportunities to grow and evolve and become calmer and a better listener.

For any person that is in a position to help others, the greatest skill you can acquire is listening. Nine times out of 10, when people approach me to tell me their story, I don’t have to say anything. All I have to do is hold the space, be present and be attuned to what they’re saying. This person has been carrying this story around for the majority of their life that’s caused them pain and suffering and all kinds of relationship problems. If they feel safe enough to approach me and tell their story, I need to be a good listener. That’s a skill that I didn’t have before and I didn’t realize how important it was.

You’ve won lots of awards for the things you’ve done on the ice. With all the work you’re doing now, how do you define success?

My new addiction is helping people. To me it’s remarkable how each and every day there’s always that one person who’s put in front of me that needs help. And when you change one person’s life they become empowered, they become a part of the group and they become an advocate. And the more advocates we have, the louder our voice gets. And when your voice gets loud enough, change happens. That’s when you move mountains. That’s when you take those people from desperation to inspiration and it’s the coolest thing to witness.

We’d like to ask you an insurance question. Is there anything you’d like to see changed about insurance?

I think a lot of services we need to protect ourselves have priced themselves out of the market. That some people have to go without insurance because they can’t afford it makes no sense to me. For example, when it comes to mental health, people only get three sessions with their therapists in a year. That’s not enough.

We have one last question for you. Do you still keep up with hockey now that you’ve been away from the game for so long?

When I retired from the game I wanted to get as far away from it as I possibly could because I wanted to make a bigger difference and a bigger impact in the world. I’m still a fan and I still do watch hockey. But at the end of the day, hockey is just a game. It’s not life and death. All those things I thought were important when I was playing are really not that important. What’s important in life is what you leave behind. Did you leave things better then when you came is sort of the mantra. I’m so focused on healing and helping other people heal. That’s what I do now. If we can get on top of this and help people heal, that’s the best thing that I’ll have ever accomplished in my lifetime.

Theo Fleury’s official website is here. Fleury’s annual Victor Walk to raise awareness about childhood trauma takes place from July 17 – 21. Learn more about it here.

  • Reply Darlene

    May 6, 2019, 3:13 pm

    Theo (and Kim) are so inspiring. Have met them a few times. Did one of the Victor walks in Calgary a few years ago. Down to earth people

  • Reply Bonnie

    May 6, 2019, 3:13 pm

    Im so sorry for your excruciating suffering. All children at age 2 and uo
    should be taught about their own body.
    Even over one. I witnessed violence for over 20 years, We all missed out on Childhoods and our lives. Desperate for fond memories. I wrote two poems A clowns tears are never shed; for fear of smudging their livelihood. Life is the theatrical production of that which is staged in our mind. Id love them sold as merchandise. I help people struggling with mental health. Tweens need healthy boundaries and assertiveness training. Toxic people can shatter your life

  • Reply Dan B

    May 6, 2019, 3:13 pm

    Theo is an inspiration.. on and off the ice he has helped so many people! I love that the Breaking Free Foundation he started has no boundaries and helps those in need! He is so strong to tell the truth and now taking the steps to help others is no easy feat and appreciated by us fans! Thank you for sharing more of his story Gore!

  • Reply Graeme

    May 6, 2019, 3:13 pm

    Fantastic read. It’s amazing the mindset shift that needs to take place when leaving an activity you grew up doing at the highest level. Some lose who they are because they feel the sport/activity was the only identity they had – add in an incredibly tough situation/adversity during and it’s amazing how Theo has shifted away from being a victim. I find this quite inspiring!

  • Reply Dianne G.

    May 6, 2019, 3:13 pm

    Some people go through life blaming others and let circumstances hold them back. A true champ like Theo Fleury uses those things to help others. I admire that so much. Theo Fleury was always my son’s favourite Flames player when he was a child and now as an adult he proudly displays an autographed #14 jersey on his wall. I think he chose a true hero to idolize and this article confirms that. Thank you Theo for showing how a true champion overcomes obstacles and beats the odds.

  • Reply Lauree Pizzale

    May 6, 2019, 3:14 pm

    Demonstrating resilience and adversity through hardships and then sharing your story is invaluable to Indigenous people. It is stories like Theo’s that have got people through their difficult lives. He used his celebrity status to benefit many people and to me that’s the most selfless thing a person can do. Theo, meegwetch for sharing a piece of you with all of us. Ninanaskomon (Cree for I am thankful).

  • Reply Mindy

    May 6, 2019, 3:14 pm

    What I love so much about Theo is his honesty. For me, I hear the lesson that all of our truths are OUR truths and by shedding the shame, the masks, the BS and simply speaking our truth from the heart, healing and miracles happen. It’s so simple. It’s so raw. And it’s so true for every single person.

    My son is a hockey player. Theo was a hero on the ice (not always for good reasons)! But now he’s more of a hero off the ice.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, Theo. We love you for YOU.

  • Reply Mary Thornton

    May 6, 2019, 3:14 pm

    I was thinking of buying Theo’s book for a family member for Christmas…on second thought I will buy it for him NOW. It could be just the thing to help him through some of his troubling times. And I agree with Theo, there are not enough services or insurance coverage for mental health issues. When Theo brought his issues to the forefront I was proud of him for taking the steps to improve his situation and for now helping others. Go Theo!!

Write a comment