After premiering recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, the doc Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire debuts tonight on HBO Canada. The film follows Theoren Fleury – among the most controversial and memorable figures in contemporary hockey history – on a promotional book tour. Director and producer Larry Day hasn’t produced a puff piece in any sense, this is a shocking and honest portrait of a man who has battled personal demons, addiction, and sexual abuse. While Theo Fleury has found a measure of success and sobriety recently, the documentary examines his career and his life, but really dwells on the scars, self-inflicted and otherwise, that Fleury carries with him.
The first shot we see is of Fleury against a green screen, getting made-up for the cameras when his smart phone rings. He picks it up, scoffs, and shows his call display to the camera “Oh, it’s the government of Manitoba,” he says “you know what that’s about? Graham James.”
There is a montage of Fleury’s career, his rage and his struggles – before the documentary deals immediately with Fleury’s motivations that led him to write his book, “Playing with Fire.” Fleury, and his co-writer are explicit: Fleury was broke (despite making over 50 million dollars US during his playing career), and he saw the book, at first, as an answer to his issues. It quickly grew into more than that however, and we see that Fleury believes strongly in his message, drawing strength and a sense of purpose from speaking about abuse, and from helping others dealing with those issues.
The competitiveness that made Fleury (who stands only 5’6″ and can’t have weighed more than 175 pounds in his prime) one of the leagues premiere point producing pests during his career, is still evident throughout the film. He complains and is deeply hurt by finishing fifth on the CBC reality show Battle of the Blades, for example. As we see him say at one of his talks “I always want to win” and in the case of the book, that meant he wanted it to be “a bestseller.”
Theo Fleury grew up in an abusive, addiction riddled house-hold. His parents are interviewed, and Day gives the viewer a textbook description of an “at risk youth.” Fleury’s abuse at the hands of the man who mentored him and held his professional prospects in those same hands, is described in graphic detail. At one point in the documentary, Theo Fleury’s father says that if he were in one of his drinking moods, he could see himself stabbing Graham James.
This isn’t a documentary about Theo Fleury’s hockey career, it’s a documentary about a deeply troubled and complicated man. The film touches on Fleury’s rise to the top of the professional ranks, but only to provide context for the fall. The fissures that eventually cracked Fleury’s life wide open were accelerated in New York and he really bottomed out in Chicago. In New York, Fleury was spending $400,000 every two weeks, and talks openly about spending ten grand a night at various Manhattan strip clubs. In Chicago, it’s explained that Fleury once spent well over a million dollars on a weekend long binge at the Drake hotel. Eventually, he even became a heroin user, a street person and a junkie. He describes at length how he considered suicide.
While the portrait is a sympathetic one, Day isn’t afraid to contradict his narrator, and he does so remorselessly when Fleury talks about apologizing to people in his life, and his relationship with his children. Day also shows the audience scenes of Fleury becoming extremely confused – in one sequence he’s unable to find his old home in Santa Fe. He talks about the toll that drugs, alcohol and making a living playing a dangerous game have taken.
Fleury burned nearly every bridge, both personal and professional, over the course of a troubled but wildly successful hockey career. He continues to do so in the film, taking a bunch of shots at Eric Francis and the Calgary Sun late in the film. His former employers seem to want nothing to do with him, really the only people from his former life who greet him warmly are the car attendants at Madison Square Garden who Fleury explains, he used to generously tip. While Fleury has got the numbers and the accolades of a sure-fire Hall of Famer, the likes of Brian Sutter explains that with his rap sheet, he’s unlikely to be inducted.
It’s sad really. While Fleury is and was a troubled man, with an awful lot of rage, he’s probably the best little-man in hockey history. Further, when you think of all that he’s been through, that he’s even alive – much less sober and successful – is as extraordinary a feat as anything he ever pulled off on the ice.
Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire airs tonight at 9 PM on HBO Canada.