Theo Fleury has led an incredible life. In an era when it was nearly impossible for smaller players to succeed, the 5’6, 180-pound forward put together an NHL career to envy, scoring 1088 points over 1084 games. Even more remarkable was what he endured and overcame while still performing at an elite level.
His story is now well-known. A victim of sexual abuse, as detailed in his best- selling autobiography Playing With Fire, he battled drug and alcohol addictions throughout his career. But Fleury has triumphed over his demons and now works as an advocate for people going through similar struggles. As part of his healing process, he turned to music — and in late 2015, released an original country album, I Am Who I Am, which reflects on the dark times of his life. The Stanley Cup champ even ventures out of the studio now and then to belt his twangy bangers in front of a live audience.
We recently sat down with Fleury to discuss his music, if there’s another album in the works, his career, his thoughts on the state of hockey, and what advice he would offer Tiger Woods.
How long have you been playing music for?
I grew up around country music. My grandpa was a fiddle player; my dad and uncle were both entertainers, so music was always a huge part of my life. It was something that I never really explored; I had just done it for fun at family gatherings. There was always a continual jam session going from start to finish. I didn’t even know I had the ability to write songs, though. I sat down with a good friend in Winnipeg and we started writing together. Then an old buddy of mine in Calgary, I didn’t even really know he was a musician and producer and writer himself, so we ended up writing some songs together, too. We wrote about 30 songs for the album, picked the ten best, and away we went.
What was it like committing yourself to making an album full of original material?
It was pretty amazing, to be honest. I actually enjoy writing songs more than I do performing them. For me, it was really cathartic. The album is pretty dark and candid and open about the struggles I’ve had in my life. It was an incredible process to sit down and start to get some of it out.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and these guys were hard partiers just like I was. There was a lot of their influence in these songs. It’s kind of a cool sound — it’s different and I didn’t want it to be like the new country bro stuff that’s out there, which I think is completely awful music. I wanted to get back to my roots and stuff that I enjoyed as a kid. I always said I was country when country wasn’t cool. I remember playing junior hockey in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and the local radio station at the time was a Top 40 station. It was really hard to find a good country station in Moose Jaw when I was playing.
What message do you hope to convey through your music?
The message is always about hope and it’s about healing. When you surrender and exhaust every last avenue to do your healing, the music for me has been a huge part of the healing process. What’s been amazing at the shows that we’ve done is how many people have come up afterwards and said, “Me too.” Or said there was a word or phrase they really related to that helped them start their own healing process.
What was it like you to put yourself out there in a way that people were not used to from you? People think of you as a hockey player, not a musician. Were you at all apprehensive knowing you were likely to be judged?
Well, you know, Carl Lewis sort of wrecked it all for us athletes who try to become entertainers! The reason I wanted to do it is because I had such an incredible experience writing my first book and all the feedback I received. The album turned out so great to me that I wasn’t worried, really. I always say if you’re going to judge somebody, make sure your side of the street is clean. There was way more positive [feedback] as opposed to negative, and the negative people, they have their own issues and problems and I don’t put anything to the negativity. We had a great time writing the songs and doing the album and now that we’re out there performing, the feedback has been nothing but positive.
Is there another project in the works?
We’re working on something.
You’ve overcome so much in your life and truly understand what it’s like to hit rock bottom and try to get your life back on track. When you see the struggles that Tiger Woods has been going through of late, what do you feel?
The first thing I feel is sadness for him. When something is going down the tubes like that… the way I see it with Tiger, for so long he’s surrounded himself with “yes people” or sort of enablers. I don’t think he has someone around him who tells him the truth. The best advice is tough to say. Everybody is so individual when it comes to recovery and healing. I hope he’s getting help but we don’t really know because he’s said it before and something seems to have happened again. I’m available and if he ever needed anybody to help him, I would be the first guy to reach out.
In an era that was not at all conducive to players of smaller stature, you had an incredibly productive NHL career. Nowadays, for guys like Johnny Gaudreau and Mitchell Marner, players similar in style to your skill set, how much easier is it to play the game compared to your era?
It’s really hard to compare eras but there’s no question that the game is built now for skill and speed, whereas when I was playing, it was a man’s game and wasn’t conducive to small guys having success. I couldn’t play a small man’s game and I think that’s why I had more success. I initiated as opposed to sitting back. I always tried to make things happen and with that came lots of confrontation. I knew I couldn’t back down from that. But it’s nice to see guys like Gaudreau and Marner and Marty St. Louis have the careers they’ve had. I was always told I was too small and I’d never make it and I’m sure it was no different for those guys. But when you have the kind of skill those guys have, that’s what really sets you apart. The game now is a very fast game, but as it speeds up, there are not a lot of guys who can maintain the skill level at that speed.
What changes would you like to see made to the game?
We just added another team so I think the talent base has only continued to get watered down. The game is wayyy, wayyy too over-coached — it’s almost like coaches are playing Xbox with these guys. IPads on every bench now. It really takes individuality out of the game. That’s why I love guys like P.K. Subban, who have their own personality and beat to their own drum. There’s definitely a lack of that now. If you look at my era, you had all these characters who played like Jeremy Roenick and Marty McSorley. They were different guys and said what was on their mind and wore their hearts on their sleeves. There were a lot of colourful people in the game. Now, when you listen to interviews with so many young guys, it’s all clichés. Not only are you supposed perform but you’re supposed to be a guy who sells the game. When you’re saying clichés all the time, I don’t think that really sells the game.
Who was the player you hated playing against most?
Esa Tikkanen. I had to play every shift of every game against him in the Battle of Alberta when we faced the Edmonton Oilers, when I was with the Flames. He was a great competitor and hard to play against. Chris Chelios is another guy who comes to mind. Guys who can compete at a high level but are big time competitors; those are hard games to play in.
Who is the one current player you’d hate to play against the most?
Nobody? Not enough grit out there or what?
So you’re saying you could have dominated the game today?
I don’t know about that! Who knows, really? But I always say I love the era I played in.