Theo Fleury charms crowd at Charlottetown speaking engagement
© Guardian photo
Theo Fleury was in Charlottetown on a speaking engagement -- one of more than 400 that the former NHL star has given since his tell-all book called Playing With Fire detailed his troubled life that included being sexually abused by coach Graham James over a period of two years when he was a teenager.
Theo Fleury quips to the young boys holding mini-sticks that their floors at home must have taken quite a scuffing.
Fleury, despite his propensity for swearing up a storm and losing his cool, has a talent for interacting with and disarming people coming from all walks of life.
He is patient, jovial and even charming with the long line of people at a Charlottetown hotel that snake towards this former NHL star with the well-known story of abuse. Even one man clutching what seems an unreasonable pile of hockey memorabilia to be signed piece by piece doesn’t dampen Fleury’s pleasant demeanor.
He continues to smile as one after another from the audience squeeze in close to him for a photograph, hands him a book to be signed or reaches over the table for a firm handshake. He doesn’t rush anyone along. He seems to take it all in stride.
Fleury has been a much-sought after celebrity ever since his best-selling tell-all book called Playing With Fire hit the shelves in 2009 detailing the sexual abuse he endured by his former coach Graham James and the subsequent self-inflicted abuse of alcohol, drugs and gambling.
The successful book has led to several spinoff projects including an edgy, plenty-of-warts-and-all HBO documentary, an acclaimed stage version of the book, and speaking engagements.
In Charlottetown, Fleury was giving his latest of more than 400 talks that have been delivered since his book made him a popular speaker to diverse audiences ranging from students to mental health groups.
Being Metis, Fleury has a natural affinity towards the Aboriginal people and thus has visited roughly 40 Native reserves to speak.
The busy schedule combined with hearing horror story upon horror story has taken an emotional toll on Fleury, says Carey Fraser, president of Fleury 14 Enterprise Inc. and the man’s personal handler.
“It’s hard to hear everybody’s stories,’’ said Fraser. “It can create sleepless nights.’’
Fleury has been overwhelmed by the large number of speaking engagements he has with people flocking to hear his thoughts on and his experiences of sexual abuse.
“When I started writing this book, I had no idea that this would happen,’’ he said.
“But you know it’s amazing when you’re willing to get honest and share your story. I think Canadians, we pride ourselves on hard work and honesty and all that stuff and I really think that that is what people connected with in the book.’’
People are regularly turning to Fleury to reveal for the first time their own story of being a victim of sexual abuse. He says most commonly they want to know how to start to deal with their dark past.
Fleury makes clear, though, that he is not a therapist or a counselor. He is an advocate trying to raise awareness about sexual abuse, which he terms the biggest epidemic on the planet.
He lashes out the media for the way his story has been covered, suggesting senationalism wins out over simply presenting a helpful message.
“We get nothing but positive feedback except from the media because the media for some reason looks at sex abuse as a money-maker: let’s revictimize the victims and let's sell a whole bunch of newspapers,’’ he said slipping into one of a couple of somewhat angry rants during a 20-minute interview with The Guardian.
He also let loose on politicians who like to boast that Canadians live in the safest country in the world.
“Well you’re full of s***,’’ he said.
“There’s eight million victims (of sexual abuse) in this country and you’re saying that and you want me to vote for you? It ain’t going to happen. I don’t understand why we’re not taking this seriously.’’
Still, Fleury says there are many people doing amazing work around sexual abuse.
He would, however, like to see much more collaboration. Without tipping his hat, he says something is in the works to bring great profile to the problem.
“We have a plan and you will hear about it and it’s going to be big and it will be in your face, so to speak, just like me,’’ he said. “A big movement: a big movement for change.’’
Fleury also plans to put together another book over the next two years dealing with what he calls “post-traumatic growth.’’
He no longer views himself as a victim or even as a survivor today. He believes he has emerged from his dark past victorious.
“I’m a victor, I’m a victor, I’m a victor,’’ he said.
“It’s taken a long time but I’m truly a victor over this. I just feel so blessed that people come out like this and listen and are inspired and when they leave they make changes in their lives.’’