Former NHL star Theo Fleury opens up about his long journey to mental health

The John Howard Society is bringing former NHL hockey star Theo Fleury to the Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.

Former NHL-er says abuse of drugs and addiction were the results of broken past relationships

Theo Fleury on set of the Persephone production of "Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story" (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

The John Howard Society recently brought former NHL hockey star Theo Fleury to the Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre in Sault Ste. Marie.

Fleury is best known as an NHL Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist and World Junior champion. But his life off the ice carried the markings of a troubled childhood, including abuse and coping with emotional pain through addictive and self-destructive behaviour.

Today, Fleury defines himself as a victor over trauma and addiction, and is a facilitator to those still trying to find their way.

The organization hopes Fleury's  experience with abuse, addictions and mental health issues helps connect centre residents to a healing path.

And as he told CBC's Up North, his is not an uncommon story.

"It's actually a story that really resonates with people who have experienced childhood trauma and then the after affects of dealing with terrible pain and suffering left behind from that experience," Fleury said.

"Everywhere I go, I get anywhere from 5 to 20 sort of 'MeToo' moments after I speak," he said. "It really helps people understand the way in which you need to unpack those trauma experiences and then ask how do I move forward from this 'MeToo' moment, now that I've found my voice, now that I've talked about my pain and suffering."

In 2009, Fleury wrote Playing With Fire. In that book, he revealed he was sexually assaulted by his coach, Graham James. It was part of a pattern of damaged relationships that Fleury said eventually led to his self-destructive path of alcohol and drugs.

"Most of us are hurt, abused, abandoned and neglected in relationships, so that's been my experience," Fleury said.

"First with my parents who had addiction problems, then the sexual abuse I suffered at the hands of a coach. That was all about relationships."

Fleury's own journey of healing

It's a pattern he says he recognizes in the inmates he visits — Algoma is the 18th facility he's visited as a speaker —  and he hopes to provide some peace for people in the same situations.

"I set the intention about five years ago that I wanted to go work in the prison system," he said. "What I discovered, is that the system is basically a mental health institution."

"A whole bunch of people who have an extensive history of trauma, and they haven't had anyone in their life explain the anger and rage and resentment and sort of bucking against that system and why that is."

Just as important, Fleury says these visits to prisons have helped him become whole again.

"[Prisons] taught me two things that have been essential in my recovery process. First thing they've taught me is about compassion for all."

"Then the second is about forgiveness. When I sort of grasped onto the concept of forgiveness, that's when my life went to another level. Higher level of compassion and empathy for the people that hurt me in my life. I'm grateful for that lesson."

To listen to the full interview with Theo Fleury click the audio link below.