Former NHL player shares his struggles with mental health after a history of abuse
Winning a gold medal at the Olympics and a Stanley Cup for the Calgary Flames could be the biggest accomplishments in an athlete’s life. But for Theo Fleury, they mean virtually nothing. Fleury is a former NHL player who came and spoke at StFX to the students and members of the Antigonish community.
He was not there though to speak about his time in the NHL or his hockey skills. Fleury came to speak about his battle with depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Fleury discussed how this was because of the traumatizing experiences of being raped as a 15-year-old boy.
Fleury began his talk by explaining his first encounter with trauma as a child. He spoke about watching his parents abuse alcohol and hearing them fight every night. “I never wanted to be at home,” says Fleury; he attributes this towards his success in hockey.
As a child, he spent as much time playing as he could, explaining, “the puck moves faster than we skate, therefore whenever I stepped on the ice I never had to think.” Hockey gave Fleury an escape; he says, “the arena was a place of sanctuary.”
All the training lead Fleury to be scouted for a team in Winnipeg. He was billeted at the age of fifteen, and lived with the scout who would be his ticket to the big leagues. It was this scout that ended up raping him 150 times in 2 1/2 years, “If I would have told anyone it would have been the end of hockey and my career, so I kept it a secret,” says Fleury.
Fleury explains that he turned to alcohol and drugs as a coping method. He explained the first time he had a drink was, “the greatest day of my life,” but that was the day he turned into an al-coholic.
A second year male StFX student in the Business program comments on Fleurys statement, saying, “In hockey your scout is supposed to be your mentor and idol, and when your support system fails, as a guy, turning to alcohol and drugs is sometimes the easiest way out.”
Fleury eventually did go to the NHL, but spent every pay check on alcohol and partying. He was sent to the NHL substance abuse program, but says at the time he “wasn’t ready to get sober”. Because being sober meant not sleeping to Fleury.
He continued by saying, “I was raped in a dark room on a bed, which meant sleeping was not an option because all I could feel was shame and fear and guilt.” He says this is what led to his alcohol abuse. Drinking until blacking out was the only way he could sleep at night.
“It is definitely easy to hide behind drinking at StFX,” states a first year Business student. “But I think it is important to question when you see someone constantly overdoing it”.
The NHL fired him, after which he went to a trauma-based “life healing centre.” This turned to be no help to him. He explains then when he got out, “I went to a pawn shop, bought a gun, some bullets, snorted as much cocaine and drank as much vodka as I could and put the loaded gun in my mouth.”
Fleury explains, “to this day I can still taste the metal and feel it against my teeth.” But he didn’t pull the trigger. Fleury says the next thing he said to himself was, “You’ve never quit anything in your life. Why would you quit now?”
The turning point for Fleury was attempting suicide, he says afterwards, “I stared in the mirror that night trying to see myself, wanting to be better, I haven’t had a drink since.”
What Fleury describes as his next issue was overcoming the stigma about telling people about his experiences. Fleury explained how initially talking about it would make him feel “re-victimized over and over again”.
He was worried about connecting with others and felt no one would understand him stating that, “1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will be sexually molested in Canada... so something that I thought was so uncommon isn’t actually that uncommon at all.”
A StFX Human Kinetics student comments, “His speech really put into perspective what people may be hiding behind their success. He also showed how it really can happen to anyone, even if you’re one of the best players in the NHL.”
Fleury now believes that people are ,“only as sick as their secrets,” and added that, “not talking about my experience and those secrets would have killed me.”
“The more people I help the more I heal myself,” said Fleury. This is how he has healed and sleeps at night. Inspiring people and working to motivate people through tough times is how he has now chosen to lead his life. As Theo states, “Helping people gives me a sense of purpose on this planet.”