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Playing With Fire
By Theo Fleury, Kirstie McLellan Day
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Theoren Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day
All rights reserved.
The End of the World
As far back as I can remember, every hockey rink that I walked into, people would whisper, "That's him ... that's him. That's that kid." They'd say I was the best damn player they ever saw and that I could skate and handle the puck like nothing they had ever seen. They'd use words like "shifty" and "crafty." These were big compliments in Russell, Manitoba. I'd hear how people would drive in all the way from the cities — Brandon, Manitoba, or Yorkton, Saskatchewan — to see "the kid from Russell." I was always trying to get attention from my parents, and failing, so I loved hearing this stuff. I absolutely loved it, but it was never enough.
You see, my dad was a bitter man. He was an alcoholic — selfish, angry and unavailable. He went to a job that he hated every day. He would get up at 6 a.m. in the freezing cold and sit in a loader that didn't have a heater. A dozen brews and three packs of smokes helped him get through the day because he was always thinking about what he could have been.
Five years before I was born, his dreams were shattered. Wally Fleury was an outstanding hockey player, a crack shot who always hit the net. He was scheduled to go to the New York Rangers training camp in September 1963, but three months before camp, he broke his leg playing baseball. He was catching. There was a pop fly between home plate and first base, he caught it and the guy at third base tagged and sprinted for home. My dad headed back as fast as he could and they collided at the plate. My dad ended up on the ground with his nose an inch from his big toe. The doctors said he would never walk again. He rehabbed his leg at home. Every day, my grandma filled up a rain barrel with boiling-hot water, and he stuck his leg in it and moved it around. He ended up playing nine games of senior hockey after that, but the leg was never the same.
My grandma, Mary Fleury, was the toughest lady ever. She was Cree. I watched her clean the clocks of three guys in a parking lot one night. They were lipping off, so she beat the shit out of them. She was really proud and didn't take crap from anybody. Her nickname was Bulldozer. It wasn't like she was extremely mean, it was just that you didn't want to get on the wrong side of her. Grandma was a champion jigger. She always carried a piece of plywood in the trunk of her car so she would have a hard surface to dance on. My grandpa played the fiddle, and his kids played guitars and she would jig. An unbelievable jigger.
We used to go to my uncle Robert's on Sundays for big jam sessions. Everybody would be dancing in the dirt outside and having a great time. My uncle had twelve kids and they all slept in one room. Wall-to-wall bunk beds in a place called Chinatown, overlooking the Assiniboine Valley. A beautiful place.
My folks were night and day. Dad was this partying athlete, while my mom was a quiet, conservative, churchy type. She was a complete emotional wreck. She was prescribed Valium when she was 16 and became hooked. When I was young, she spent time in the hospital getting shock treatment. I remember her being so nervous about everything. Her biggest worry was that she would run out of pills, so she hid them — in the teapot, behind the radiator, on top of the fridge, between the cushions. She had them stashed everywhere.
My two younger brothers, Ted and Travis, had to put up with all this bullshit too. None of us trusted our parents enough to go to them with any sort of problem, so we learned how to deal with things on our own. We were acting out in school because that is what kids do when they don't have great home lives. We got into fights and caused all kinds of trouble. My dad was always drinking and screaming at my mom, and she was always angry with him. Chaos, chaos, chaos, always chaos. Somebody mad at somebody. Not physical violence, just arguing. Swearing, yelling. When I think about my mom and dad, I realize their behaviour was unacceptable for kids to see.
Being the oldest, I took on the role of protecting my mother. The first time I stepped up I was ten. I remember Dad was hassling her. We had no money for groceries because he'd spent his entire paycheque in the bar. She was crying and begging him to stop doing that. He started calling her all sorts of awful names, telling her she was a fuckin' bitch and always on his back. He started moving closer and closer to her, really threatening. To us he was a big guy, five foot ten or so, and he weighed about 190. She was only five-two and maybe 120 pounds. I was a lot smaller than both of them — four foot nine and 80 pounds, tops. Seeing him looming over her so unsteadily and feeling how scared she was, something snapped in me. You know those stories about a mother lifting a car because her kid is trapped beneath? Well, I ran at him. I was violent, screaming and forcing him all the way down the lawn and into his car, telling him to get the hell out and never come back. I remember he looked confused, but he understood. My anger made me dangerous. When you're raging and you have absolutely no fear, you can do a lot of damage. That quality would really become a part of who I was on the ice. Because when you act crazy, people back away.
I became a bully at school. I was small, always about half a foot shorter than all the other guys, and I needed to take up space in the world. How do you do that? You have to be tougher than everybody else.
Every day, I intimidated people. I was always picking on somebody I shouldn't have picked on. I was aggressive, putting schoolmates down, calling them out, trying to make myself feel better. I could pick out a weakness within five seconds. Teachers hated me — oh, they hated me. In Grade 4, I started the year at the back of the room. Within a week I was sitting beside the teacher, facing the class, because I was so mouthy and kept interrupting the class, trying to get attention. I was the king of comments.
In Grade 6, we were playing charades in class and the subject was television shows. This girl went up. She was a little ahead of the game in terms of physical development, but didn't wear a bra yet, so she had the brights going. The teacher gave her a TV show title, and when she turned to face the class I yelled, "Knight Rider!"
We used to have winter games at school in Russell. One of the activities was kicking — a co-ed game where you kicked at a rubber puck like a soccer ball. Well, I absolutely levelled another one of the girls in my class. Knocked her right on her ass. My teacher came over, and — wham! — reached back and whacked me a good one across the face. I still remember it to this day. Mrs. Kleemack. She couldn't help herself — I pushed teachers to the point of no return. That is how much I can piss somebody off. It's funny, the last couple years, now that I've really got some solid sobriety behind me, I sit down and think, "Holy shit, I've got some amends to make to people, you know?"
Being subjected to so much dysfunction at home, I needed an outlet. Sports were my salvation and escape. Right from day one, I was special. I had this gift. I was good at anything and everything that had to do with sports, and I knew it. I mean, what 5-year-old puts on an old, dull pair of men's skates for the first time and just glides across the ice?
We were living in Binscarth, Manitoba, when one of my buddies, Greg Slywchuck, and I were walking home from kindergarten and he said, "We are startin' hockey tonight. Would you like to come play?" And I was like, "Sure, why not?" So I went home and asked my mom, "Do we have any hockey equipment or anything?" She found a rusty pair of my dad's skates and a broken hockey stick and shoved them into a pillowcase. I walked down to the rink by myself. It was an old barn with two sheets of curling ice on the sides and a tiny skating surface in the middle. And you know what? I don't recall falling down. I just laced 'em up, stepped out onto the ice and zoom. It was like I belonged somewhere for the first time. Three hours later, when the game was long over, they had to force me to go home.
Once I started playing hockey, my goal was to play in the NHL. From the time I was 6 until January 1, 1989, when I got called up, that was exactly what I was going to do, and there was nobody who was going to stop me. My dad did all the maintenance at the rink in Russell for a few years, so I had unlimited ice time. I spent six hours a day, every day from October to March, skating and stickhandling through a phantom defence, then shooting from every angle you can imagine. He would pull me around behind the Zamboni and I would practise waving to the crowds. For me, it wasn't a fantasy. It's not like I dreamed of getting in the NHL, I was getting ready to go into the NHL. And as shitty as my childhood was, my parents treated it as a reality too.
I was probably the luckiest kid to have the group of guys I played with growing up. We were together from the time I was 6 until I left for the Moose Jaw Warriors at 14. And our coaches were three super, focused, caring parents who loved each and every one of us. Doug Fowler, Jim Petz and Walter Werschler each treated me like I was his own son. Walter, the team trainer, was deaf, so we all learned sign language. These men taught me all the things my dad didn't — respect your elders, mind your manners and nobody, no matter how talented, is bigger than the team. They taught me that every member has to care about the others. We were like one big, huge family. We travelled all over Manitoba and Saskatchewan and we killed everybody. The Russell Rams. The coaches' kids were Kent Fowler, he's a geologist now; Ted Petz, he's got a karate studio in Winnipeg; and Bobby Werschler, who is happily married with two girls. Bobby still plays recreational hockey. I don't know what my life would have looked like if it weren't for those people who fell in love with this little shit hockey player.
I think that 90 per cent of that team ended up playing junior. These three coaches, their wives and the parents of the other kids on the team were the main reason I made it in hockey. They always made sure I was fed, watered and encouraged. I never left the house with any money at all, but when I came home after a game, my tummy was full and I wasn't thirsty. And after stepping off the ice, there was always a hug or a pat on the head and a "Great game!"
My mom refused to watch me play. She was paranoid, always terrified I'd get hurt. And my dad was an embarrassment. He'd come to games half cut and he'd be weaving around, bragging about me and taking credit. "Look how good my kid is. I told him to go out there and score. You are goddamned lucky to have my kid on your team."
Unfortunately, the Central Hotel was about five steps from the rink. My dad would wander around the boards, watch a period, go have some beers and then return to watch the next one. After showers, I'd be the last guy out of the dressing room. I always took my time because I didn't want to go home. But it really didn't matter how long I took. Even when it was forty below, my dad never showed up to drive me. He'd be back at the Central, bending his elbow for the rest of the night. Funny how I always had hope. I'd stand at the door and wait for him. The first half-hour, I'd lean my head against the window, breathing on the glass and writing my name in the fog. For the next half-hour I would walk the lines between the tiles on the floor, pretending I was on a tightrope fifty storeys high. Whenever I got bored, I'd pull out my stick and balance a puck on the end of it, tossing it around and trying not to let it hit the floor. Most times, I just gave up waiting and walked home. Winters in Russell can get so cold that your eyelids freeze shut the minute you step outside. But the worst thing was that I would have to walk past the Catholic church — St. Joseph's. That scared the hell out of me.
As I said, my dad is part Cree — his great-grandmother's last name was Blackbird — and the Catholic missionaries were active in the area when his Native ancestors were being moved onto reservations. My dad grew up a Catholic but stopped going to Mass. I went every Sunday, beginning when I was 6. My hockey buddies were Catholic, so I tagged along, and we all became altar boys together. I received my First Communion, First Confession and Confirmation at St. Joseph's. The church was a nice place to hang out. I felt comfortable there. I was wanted and needed. The atmosphere at the church was calming. From the smells of burning candles, incense and waxed pews to the quiet chords on the organ. I liked the way my shoes moved over the carpets without making a sound. Most of my clothes were old and patched and grubby, so I loved putting on the altar boy's black cassock and the smell of the clean, white starched vestment over top. No matter how badly I felt when I arrived, by the time I left I'd be relaxed and centred.
There was a priest there named Father Paul. I liked him because he was solid. He was something I didn't have in my life — a constant. At the time, I thought he was really old, but it turns out he was in his 40s. He was from Poland, kind of short and bald. He looked a bit like Pope John Paul II at the time. I used to go help him serve Mass on Wednesday nights. Generally, he liked to have a nip after supper, so I'd help steady his hand while he served Communion to the three or four old people in the audience. He smelled comfortable, like Old Spice, whisky and Listerine.
And whenever I wanted to talk, he would listen — I mean, really pay attention. I'd tell him about hockey and baseball and school. If something was wrong at home or I was feeling sad, I'd talk. I told him about how I wished my dad would stop drinking and get more involved in my life, and how it sucked that my mom was always sleeping or sick. Father Paul would reassure me. He'd tell me to pray and to have a strong faith. He'd say that God was watching over me and not to worry because He had a plan for me. I'd go away thinking, "Okay, things are rough now, but that is just God throwing a few problems my way to make me stronger. He won't give me anything I can't handle."
I arrived for church early one Sunday to serve Mass, and there was an ambulance there. Father Paul had had a heart attack and dropped dead while shovelling snow. I was so hurt and pissed off, I didn't even go to his funeral. The one person I could count on was gone. I paced outside the building while the service was going on, thinking, "Oh man, what am I gonna do now? Where am I gonna go? Who's gonna be there? Just be there?" I never went back after that. I was 12. It was a devastating loss.
When I was growing up, Thursday nights were the worst nights. My mother was a Jehovah's Witness, and each week there was a small Jehovah's Witness Bible study at a farm about five or six miles from town. My brothers and I were forced to tag along because she couldn't leave us alone and my dad would be out drinking. Going to that Bible study gave me all these crazy, wild, mixed messages because I was a Catholic. JWs believe the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is inspired by Satan — yet here I was, praying to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost every day. I was in league with the Devil.
My mom's religion says that everything is all bad all the time. The world is going to come to an end any minute, and Satan is everywhere. This scared the crap out of me. I was so worried about Armageddon that I tried to stay awake every night because I figured if I went to sleep, that was it. I usually made it to 3 or 4 a.m., then the bad dreams would come. I still remember running through burning buildings, ducking the hail and trying to hide as big, scary, screaming angels with black wings shot across the night sky looking for me. Or I'd turn a corner and a weird, freaky face would come at me from behind a wall. And Satan, fuckin' Satan, he would open his mouth and swallow houses and churches and people. Oh, those meetings were a lovely thing to take an 8-year-old to.
Excerpted from Playing With Fire by Theo Fleury, Kirstie McLellan Day. Copyright © 2009 Theoren Fleury and Kirstie McLellan Day. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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