Fleury's no longer playing with fire

George Johnson
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Today's the anniversary of the most important day of his life: the day he became sober

Swallowed up by the darkness in a room in Santa Fe, N.M., the psychological rope dangerously frayed, his singular emotional wellspring run perilously dry, Theoren Fleury couldn't help but despair about where his life would lead. Or how it might end.

"I just didn't leave it," Fleury recalled. "For days. Weeks. Seemed like months. Didn't eat. Didn't sleep. Didn't open the curtains and let the light in.

Calgary Flames hopeful Theo Fleury (right) skates beside team captain Jarome Iginla at practice this week in Calgary. Fleury is attempting an NHL comeback with the Flames, with whom he won a Stanley Cup as a rookie two decades ago. - Photo by Canwest News

Calgary -

Swallowed up by the darkness in a room in Santa Fe, N.M., the psychological rope dangerously frayed, his singular emotional wellspring run perilously dry, Theoren Fleury couldn't help but despair about where his life would lead. Or how it might end.

"I just didn't leave it," Fleury recalled. "For days. Weeks. Seemed like months. Didn't eat. Didn't sleep. Didn't open the curtains and let the light in.

"You go through so many emotions in that kind of a situation, alone. Bitterness. Betrayal. Self-loathing. Self-pity. Anger. Frustration. Confusion.

"You think crazy things. You think scary things.

"It was here in Calgary that I finally made the decision. Told myself, 'I can't do this anymore. I can't live this way anymore.' There's a point (when) you either come to the realization or you don't, a very basic but very true question that has to be answered: How can I have a decent relationship with anyone else if I don't have one with myself?"

People, for reasons too obvious to repeat, love Fleury.

Today, he likes himself. And that's enough.

On Thursday, miraculously, after six years exiled from a stage he once commanded, he returns to the game that for so long defined him.

The mouthy little urchin backed by a fierce talent makes his return to the NHL in an exhibition game against the New York Islanders. A prospect many, including Fleury, thought patently ridiculous only months ago.

Today, Fleury celebrates a different milestone.

"It is my Sobriety Day," he said. "A big day. The fourth anniversary of the day I stopped drinking."

It's a day more important than any other on his calendar - birthday, Christmas, '89 Stanley Cup anniversary. You name it.

"I'm here. I'm alive. The fact that I'm back at an NHL camp, this NHL camp, where it all started for me, is amazing. I feel lucky. Blessed."

His battles with the bottle have been documented often since he began melting down publicly during his years in New York and, fatefully, Chicago.

A tell-all autobiography, "Playing With Fire," is due out Oct. 16 and promises to be a harrowing confession of a Pandora's box lifestyle of drunken recklessness, the flip-side of his highly sanitized earlier life story in print, "Fury." It will, he vows, shed the light on the rumours: How much was his involvement in the Graham James sex scandal kept hidden? What about that infamous night at the strip club in Columbus when the wheels good and truly came off the little red wagon? How deep the depression and how desperate was he to make it go away?

Surrounded by a phalanx of parasites, sycophants, toadies, flatterers and panderers, drawn like moths to a flame by fame, money and lifestyle of excess, he was able to con himself, and many others. He let himself down. He let others down.

"The people around me were as screwed up as I was. My life was just ... chaos. It sound's weird, I know, but when you're living it on a day-to-day basis, there seems to be a certain safety in that chaos."

Jennifer Ivanochko first met Fleury five years ago. A friend asked her if she wanted to go watch a hockey game involving the Horse Lake Thunder senior triple-A team at the Red Deer Enmax Centrium. A big-time former NHL player was playing. And there was a party afterwards. OK, she thought. Why not?

"I remember Theoren skating towards the faceoff circle," she recalled recently. "And his helmet wasn't on. I don't know if it was broken or not. But he was holding the game up. I kept thinking: 'Just play hockey, pal. How high maintenance is that guy?' "

Turns out, they grew up living 50 kilometres from each other in small towns on either side of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border (Fleury in Russell, Man., Ivanochko in Yorkton, Sask.). Their families knew each other. They've been married four years now and are proud parents of a one-year-old daughter, Skylah.

"People," said Jennifer, "always ask me about the dark, wild days. Actually, I never saw any of that. I never knew him as an NHL player. I hear stories and they're hard for me to believe. Crazy.

"That's so not the person he is today. In our relationship, the first six months we partied. After that, all I've known is sober Theoren.

"He is happier today. We're happier today. We've been given this gift from God, this little girl to take care of and to love."

Fleury calls her his "rock," his "glue."

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for her. I live a pretty quiet life now. No more peaks and valleys. I've moved from the driver's seat to the passenger seat. By that, I mean I let things happen now. I don't try to force my life a certain way, because when I used to do that I always screwed up. I take what comes."

Seeing him even a year ago, the idea of mounting a serious comeback would've elicited a giggle. First of all, he would need to work himself into NHL shape. ("I had to start hiding the candy," Ivanochko said. "He likes his sweets.")

He understood that without a strong conditioning base, the whole experiment could never get off the ground; he wouldn't be taken seriously.

"Actually," said Jennifer,"I think the (NHL) reinstatement was the most important thing to Theoren. That cleared our name. Everything else from here on is a bonus."

And the sight of her husband on the ice, getting a sense of how much he meant to Calgary?

"If he gets the chance," she said, "I think I'll cry the whole game.

"I'm so proud of him. We're all so proud of him."

The reception Fleury is going to undoubtedly skate out to Thursday could very well set precedents in Calgary. Best bring along earplugs or a bottle of Tylenol 3s. The interest in this comeback bid has been intense, the goodwill overwhelming. But this is someone who revels in attention, who is not distracted or overwhelmed by it. It's part of his DNA. This is a wonderful, emotional, even inspirational story. One to be embraced, not muzzled.

"If I can help one person see that it can be done, then I'll be happy," he said. "If just one person struggling with this disease sees me, and says to themselves: If he can do it, so can I, then it's a success.

"Go to Renfrew Park and talk to some of the guys there going through detox. It's sad. I know. I've been there. They need help. They need hope."

Whatever the eventual outcome of the Fleury saga at this training camp, it'll be a win situation. He'll have either launched one of the most astounding comebacks in recent sports history - think of being away from any job for six years, notwithstanding one so utterly demanding - or one of the most unforgettable, dynamic players of a generation will be given the opportunity to retire with dignity, instead of forever wearing the stain of dishonourable discharge.

"Sobriety," Fleury, ever the entertaining imp, said, "is like listening to one of those hurtin' country songs in reverse.

"You get back your girl. You get back your dog. You get back your truck. Best of all ... you get back your life."

Organizations: NHL, New York Islanders

Geographic location: Calgary, Santa Fe, N.M., New York Chicago Columbus Russell Yorkton Sask. Renfrew Park

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  • david
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Theo: May God be close to you in your quest for sobriety..i was there also...i am 25 yrs sober. I know how you felt or close to it. As one who has been there: to a great inspiration for others in your private life and on the ice, i want to let you know that you are really not alone...God Bless you: Dave

  • david
    July 01, 2010 - 20:08

    Theo: May God be close to you in your quest for sobriety..i was there also...i am 25 yrs sober. I know how you felt or close to it. As one who has been there: to a great inspiration for others in your private life and on the ice, i want to let you know that you are really not alone...God Bless you: Dave