Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire is a 2012 documentary that paints an intimate portrait of former NHL player Theoren Fleury. The film, which shares its title with Fleury’s 2009 autobiography Playing With Fire, was screened in Toronto at the Hot Docs film festival, where I watched it on Saturday. Fleury’s story is complex, tragic and inspiring, and the film does a good job of capturing the complex and contradictory aspects of Fleury’s personality.
Fleury achieved NHL stardom with the Calgary Flames in the 1990s, and later played for the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Despite standing just 5’6”, Fleury played with a tenacious determination that won him as many admirers as enemies. While few questioned his hockey abilities, Fleury increasingly became known for erratic and aggressive on-ice actions and a host of off-ice incidents. On multiple occasions Fleury stepped away from the game to participate in the NHL’s substance abuse program, which seeks to help players who struggle with drug and alcohol addictions. In addition to his mental health and addiction struggles, Fleury revealed in 2009 that as a teenager he had been sexually assaulted by Graham James, a former coach in the Western Hockey League who was imprisoned in 1997 for sexually assaulting Sheldon Kennedy.
The film is essentially a North American road trip with Fleury, who provides the filmmakers with tours of key locations in his life: his hometown of Russell, Manitoba; Winnipeg, where he moved to play junior hockey and where he was first assaulted by James; Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he also played junior hockey under James; Calgary, New York and Chicago, three of the four cities in which he played NHL hockey; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lived during some of his worst struggles with mental illness and addiction. Fleury gave the filmmakers intimate access to his life, with the notable exception of his children, whom Fleury did not want included in the film. Some of the film’s strongest moments are when it captures Fleury philosophizing or moralizing based upon his recollections of his life and his ongoing experiences.
The film shows Fleury at his most admirable and, through interviews with other figures in his life, at his most despicable. Since revealing that he was a victim of sexual assault, Fleury has crusaded for tougher sentencing for sexual predators and has made himself available to other victims of abuse to offer support and comfort. In one particularly poignant scene we see Fleury comforting a youth who has been abused and who attended one of his book signings. The scene shows the profound damage that sexual assault can cause and the admirable efforts of Fleury to face his own demons and aid those who have been through similar trauma. Other scenes, however, show Fleury as a stubborn man with a long history of broken relationships and of inflicting emotional pain on those who got close to him. Interview clips with Fleury’s ex-wife paint him as a negligent father whose actions were significantly damaging to his first son. The film also makes it clear that he burned many bridges in his hockey career, both with teammates and management – yet also that Fleury does not care about those damaged relationships.
One might assume that hockey was a relief for Fleury from the emotional trauma that he carries with him, an oasis in a difficult life. But the film suggests otherwise. Fleury’s interest in hockey seems to have been born more out a burning determination not to fail than of a love of the sport. Footage from his participation on the Flames’ Alumni Team during the 2011 Heritage Classic game shows Fleury as an outsider who shares little interpersonal connection with his old teammates. Interviews with some of these ex-teammates, such as Jamie Macoun and Mike Vernon, suggest an ambivalent—if sympathetic—view of Fleury.
Interestingly, Fleury seems much more at home with hockey outsiders. In one moving scene he shares an emotional reunion with two parking attendants at Madison Square Garden whom he befriended while with the Rangers. However, immediately afterward Fleury notes that he always tipped the attendants incredibly well because it made him feel good, thus calling into question the altruism of the relationship. Nonetheless, Fleury seems genuinely happy to see the two men again, and he shows similar rapport when meeting with Calgarian playwrights who are making his story into a stage production. Similar ease with non-hockey people is suggested in Fleury’s statement that, while living in New York, he would frequently bring wine and money to homeless people at Chelsea Pier and talk with them through the night, finding companionship with people who faced some of his struggles.
Fleury’s honesty makes for some harrowing tales of addiction and abuse. He describes in explicit detail the abuse he suffered at James’ hands as a 13 year-old. He walks the filmmakers through the inner city Chicago neighbourhood where he sought out drugs, even taking them outside a dilapidated crack house he frequented. He strolls past a strip club in New York and details how he would spend $10,000 a night there on alcohol, drugs and strippers (the film reveals that he spent roughly $3 million on these during his time with the Rangers). He talks candidly about the night he nearly committed suicide, and admits that, although he ultimately chose to live rather than die, he did not “know how to live on life’s terms.” One of the saddest aspects of the film is the stories of people who tried to help Fleury out of his addiction, only to have him reject their help and turn his anger on them.
Although the film is focused on one man’s story, it makes some interesting comments on the broader culture of hockey. Two moments stuck out for me in this regard. One is a hotel room diatribe by Fleury in Moose Jaw, where he returned to accept induction into the Moose Jaw Warriors Hall of Fame. Despite having recently gone public with his experience of sexual abuse, and despite the fact that some of this abuse had taken place during his junior career in Moose Jaw, these facts were completely ignored by attendees at the induction gala. In his hotel room, Fleury vents his anger toward the Moose Jaw hockey community, discusses the challenges of putting on a gracious public face despite his inner anger, and argues that surely some people on the team or in the community knew of James’ actions and kept them silent. It is a profound personal moment, but also a scathing commentary of the hockey culture of at least some, if not many, small Canadian towns – a culture in which hockey is glorified to the extent that its victims, be they male players who are sexually assaulted or hazed or young girls in the community who are raped by junior hockey players and coaches, are marginalized and ostracized for criticizing the cultural institution of hockey. In one subtle scene, Fleury looks at an old team portrait that still hangs in the Moose Jaw arena – a portrait that includes both Fleury and James. The fact that the Moose Jaw hockey community sees no problem with this picture adorning the walls of its main arena, and that it gives assent to James’ tenure as coach by its silence toward Fleury, speaks powerfully about the social problems that can be found in some junior hockey cultures.
The second scene is an interview with Brian Sutter, who was the coach of the Blackhawks when Fleury played there. Sutter is talking about Fleury’s Hall of Fame credentials, and whether the player will ever achieve induction (validation that Fleury seems to desperately want). Sutter admits that Fleury’s statistics and on-ice accomplishments should garner him entry, but suggests that his off-ice behaviour makes him unworthy of admission. Sutter notes that there is “a code of conduct” by which players are judged, and suggests that Fleury violated this code in his interactions with hockey personnel. I found this a very powerful insight into hockey’s code of honour – something we have discussed on this blog in terms of fighting and vigilante justice, but which clearly extends into notions of respectable conduct both on and off the ice. What is also interesting is that Fleury seems to be judged harshly by arbiters of hockey’s legacy, in spite of the fact that he suffered from extreme mental health problems and serious addictions. While Sutter expresses some sympathy for these struggles, he ultimately concludes that it is up to the individual to make the right choices, take the available help, and overcome these barriers. Fleury is therefore cast as a failure, someone who had an opportunity to carve out a hockey legacy and who squandered that chance.
This leads me to my largest criticism of Playing With Fire. While it paints a nuanced portrait of an individual with mental health and addiction issues, it does little to address these issues more broadly and to look at ways in which Canadian society fails to adequately support people with mental health struggles. Despite ongoing challenges, Fleury has made remarkable changes in his life and has channeled his experiences into a passion for helping other victims of abuse. But Fleury also had access to resources and support systems that are not available to the vast majority of Canadians suffering from a mental illness, and in this respect his story is an anomaly. While the focus of the film is obviously on Fleury, I felt that there was a missed opportunity for it to explore these broader social and political implications of mental illness and addiction.
That being said, there is definitely value in documenting Fleury’s life narrative and the cautious optimism it suggests, and I do not want to suggest otherwise. It is interesting, however, that our society so highly privileges celebrity that it will create a market demand for the redemptive story of an NHL hockey player but not for tales of many less celebrated individuals facing similar or worse mental health problems. This is not a criticism of the film per se, but rather an interesting side question that is raised by it.
Ultimately, I felt that Playing With Fire was an excellent film that has much to contribute to our understanding of mental illness and addiction in sport, as well as to issues of sexual abuse and cultures of silence in Canadian hockey. It will be very interesting to see how the film is received within the hockey community.