NHL Star speaks up about sexual abuse

Within twenty pages of Playing With Fire, the worst of it is over, and Theoron Fleury has described the sexual abuse he received from his former WHL hockey coach Graham James. “The room had two double beds … [James] and I would share the one on the right by the window. Around two in the morning, I woke up. There was a hand on me, rubbing my ass.”

Thirteen year-old Theo convinced himself that the first incident was a mistake. James told Theo he would get him to the NHL and thereby had control over the young player’s dreams. James gained even more control when he recruited Theo to play for the Winnipeg Warriors of the WHL, where James was head coach. There, James “invited” Theo for sleepovers at least two times a week.

“He’d wait until the middle of the night, then he’d crawl around the room on his hands and knees. It was the same every time. He would start massaging my feet and I wouldn’t move, pretending to be asleep. He would try to come up higher but with that blanket wrapped so tight, he couldn’t get at me.” These nights of dark fear led to mental stress and exhaustion. Theo describes how he would “drag [himself] to school the next day and fall asleep in class.”

In the spring of 1983, after a year of repelling James, Theo finally gave in. “In 2005, I read an article … that described how military doctors at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba advised interrogators how to break down prisoners by increasing their stress levels and exploiting their fears,” says Theo. “Boy, did I relate to that.”

“He just broke me down. I was exhausted,” admits Fleury. “That night in 1983, I left the blanket on the bed. I was fourteen.” Fleury continues, detailing what would become a regular nightmare for him. “He started a routine whenever I was over - masturbate on my feet, then give a blowjob, then let me sleep.”

Passages like these are difficult to read, sickening, and hard to picture happening to someone, let alone a feisty NHL superstar like Fleury. These problems, however, are vital in realizing major problems within athletics, as well as with the NHL itself.

The first, and most obvious in the context of Fleury’s abuse, is the amount of power that coaches can wield over their players, a power which James used to molest several young boys. “Graham convinced me that, if not for him and his help, I would not be going to the NHL,” says Fleury. “As far as I was concerned, the whole reason for my existence was to make The Show.”

Although sexual abuse is one of the most disturbing, other types of abuse are allowed and even accepted by the sporting community. Coaches are often viewed as authorities in areas where they aren’t qualified: injuries, recovery times, and weight training are common examples. Threatening a player to kick them off the team unless they perform or do certain tasks is another garden-variety type of mental abuse.

Another major problem the book exposes is the perception of players who stand up for themselves against their authority figures. Fleury describes his own turmoil about exposing his abuser: “I thought about telling but who could I turn to? Who would believe me over him? And what would happen if I did tell?” Fleury continues by saying that if he had reported James, he never would have made the Canadian Junior Team, a team that propelled him to the NHL. Also, he would be viewed as “the pervy kid who had a ‘relationship with his coach,’” or, “James [would be seen as] a pervert and Fleury ‘let him’ molest him.”

To cope, Fleury turned to alcohol, describing it as “something [he] could not live without, like oxygen or hockey.” This proves a common coping mechanism for victims of abuse; other players abused by James became alcoholics, such as Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL player who was the first to come forward against James in 1996.

The details of Fleury’s obsession with drugs and alcohol are well known to sports fans, although many don’t know the true extent to which he indulged. Fleury drank liquor with the same intensity that he played, perhaps more, yet for most of his career he remained highly functional. He would stay up all night, arrive at the hotel as the team bus was warming up, go to practice, then crash until the game.

Fleury dominated the idea of hangovers – although he did “feel like shit,” it never stopped him from excelling at the highest level of a professional sport. On one occasion he arrived to a workout with a runny nose and reeking of booze. He hadn’t been home yet, but still completed an NHL level workout that included a cardio session up and down an immense flight of stairs.

After Calgary refused to re-sign him, an act many saw as unfair, Fleury briefly played for the Colorado Avalanche before being traded to the New York Rangers, a city he compared to a candy shop, saying that there’s “plenty of candy in New York … [and] I didn’t have the tools to deal with it.”

It was in New York that the effects of his drug and alcohol use finally caught up with him; his play was noticeably worse and he was approached by team officials who entered him in the NHL’s substance abuse program.

Without a doubt, the sexual abuse by Graham James is the worst problem revealed in the book, however, the way the league turns a blind eye towards a blatant culture of drugs and alcohol shared by many players is nearly as bad, and perpetrated on a higher scale.

The NHL repeatedly ignored Fleury’s “consistently dirty” urine samples. He used Gatorade for some, “sometimes other people’s pee, sometimes even [his son’s].” The league was fully aware that he had continued his drug use, warning him that, “If you continue this behaviour, we’re going to have to pull you out [of the program].” These were empty threats. “I was one of the highest scoring players in the NHL. What were they going to do?”

The league has also consistently ignored, or handed down light suspensions on very serious alcohol related offences. Mike Keane has a drunk driving conviction and Craig MacTavish killed a woman while driving home drunk from a bar. Since their convictions, both have enjoyed long coaching careers in the NHL, and faced little penalty for their actions. Rob Ramage, Chris Pronger, Dominik Hašek, and Bobby Hull are all high-profile stars that shared similar convictions.

If a player or coach could, as Fleury did, spend a night indulging, yet still show up for the games, then there was no problem, as far as the league was concerned; the players were still making money for the NHL. Exposing their players as alcoholics and drug addicts would simply bring negative publicity.

These problems are all addressed at length in the book, but at its core, Playing With Fire is an attempt for Fleury to reconcile his own decision to remain silent for so long about his sexual abuse; by telling his story, he can prevent other young people from suffering the same fate as he did.

“If you are a kid who is in the situation I was in, and somebody older is using you for sex, call for help,” says Fleury. “Seriously, you are not alone. Pick up the phone.”

//Mac Fairbairn

Sports Editor

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