Theo Fleury’s destructive relationship with cocaine was destined before he was born.
As her first child was developing in her womb, Donna Fleury was addicted to Valium, a drug that enhances the brain’s GABA, the neurotransmitter that soothes our body but can also shut off the brain’s excitable, pleasure-deriving neurotransmitter — dopamine.
“So when I came out into the world, I had no way of producing dopamine,” Fleury, 46, told Sportsnet this week.
The chemical imbalance in Fleury’s brain righted itself, however, the moment he stepped on the ice, as the thrill of the game and the physical exertion flooded his system with a hormone that encourages reward-motivated behaviour. It’s the science, he says, behind his addiction to hockey as a kid.
So when the scrappy winger was playing in the NHL, natural dopamine circulated through his body and his performance wasn’t affected too severely by his off-ice behaviour. “I was in the perfect spot, the perfect state,” he says. “I was level.”
It was after the night’s final shift, however, that his demons would surface.
“When I left the rink? No more dopamine,” he says. “What is cocaine? Pure dopamine.”
"It’s hard to get rid of that moniker of this troubled soul, this troubled hockey player."
In his bestselling 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire, Fleury detailed the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of junior coach Graham James and his subsequent addiction to gambling, drugs and alcohol.
Fleury wrote that he put a loaded gun in his mouth in 2004. In 2005, with help from his second wife Jennifer, he got sober.
Today, Fleury says he didn’t understand the science behind his craving for dopamine until he sat in his kitchen with renowned therapist Kim Barthel.
The two spoke about personal trauma for 72 hours – a marathon chat that concluded with an “amazing breakthrough” for Fleury and the premise for his second book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake: Raw and Honest Reflections on Healing and Trauma.
“It wasn’t till I understood the science behind my behaviour that I made the greatest strides of my life,” Fleury says. “I realized there wasn’t one thing that I could’ve changed about my life to make it any different than what it was. That took away all of the shame.”
Just as a rattlesnake sheds its skin to recreate itself, so too can those dealing with trauma, Barthel explains.
“When you’re having a conversation with your own inner self, you can transform yourself. That’s the point of the book,” Barthel says.
Fleury says Playing with Fire and its accompanying documentary painted him as angry and vengeful. He became a posterboy for sexual abuse, but that was never his intention.
“I’m so much more than that. I’m a spiritual teacher, a spiritual healer now. Because Playing with Fire was so in-your-face and so raw and so honest, it’s hard to get rid of that moniker of this troubled soul, this troubled hockey player,” he says. "But I’m not a hockey player anymore. The people that sign my cheques don’t work for the NHL.”
The five-foot-six firecracker with the Stanley Cup ring (’89) who flew past the 1,000-point mark doesn’t play as much as shinny these days. He has no desire to. He’d rather throw himself into charity work, public speaking, writing and recording a country music album (true story).
“I run into ex-NHL players around my travels and their sole identity is still connected to hockey. I don’t want that anymore. It’s something I used to do,” Fleury says (though he’s still a fan of the game). “Wouldn’t it be nice to hear: ‘Oh, Theo Fleury, the spiritual healer? Didn’t he used to play hockey?’ ”
If Fire was Fleury exorcising his demons, Rattlesnake is the next step. It’s meant to give readers the tools to heal themselves.
Dining alone in the corner of a Calgary restaurant, a woman watched Barthel and Fleury. The fast friends were deeply engaged in discussion while writing a chapter of the book. The stranger caught Fleury’s eye from across the room and mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
When the co-authors left the restaurant, the woman caught them in the parking lot. Spilling with emotion, she approached Fleury and said, “Thank you for giving those of us who don’t have a voice a voice.”
The encounter stuck with both Barthel and Fleury.
“I wonder how long that simple 10-minute conversation lasts for that person. Ten minutes? Half an hour? Five days? Thirty days? The rest of her life?” says Fleury.
The guy who used to play hockey has a new goal -- to create a community of healing.
“It’s okay to feel like this.”