It was three years ago that I spoke with former NHL superstar Theoren Fleury about the abuse he'd suffered at the hands of Graham James, and I came away impressed with the Manitoban's calm, level-headed approach towards not only the former junior hockey coach who had targeted him and so many other young players, but life in general.
"The biggest thing that we have never been taught is compassion," the pride of Russell told me, explaining why he'd like to one day sit down with James to explain the impact of his horrific crimes.
"We’ve only been taught to react with anger and rage and all that stuff. How’s that working for the world? It’s not. The greatest revenge is peace, happiness, love, kindness, compassion, humility, vulnerability — all that stuff. That’s where we’ve got to get to."
I've found myself reflecting on that conversation plenty of times in recent months, wondering what has become of all those positive traits Fleury was striving for. You'll find none of them on his Twitter account, which has become a dark and twisted place filled with profane political rants, frivolous COVID-19 conspiracy theories and no shortage of hate on display for his 128,000 followers.
It's crossed so far over the line that Brandon University, which presented Fleury with an honorary doctorate in 2015 for his work in advocating for victims of sexual abuse, issued a statement this week denouncing his ill-informed conduct. The final straw was Fleury's weekend tirade in which he compared vaccine passports to pedophilia, then backed up his nonsense by sharing screen shots of several awards he's received, including the BU degree.
"Fleury’s significant contributions to exposing the rot in junior hockey, and to supporting other survivors of child sexual abuse through recovery, continue to deserve respect," the university said. "It is understandable that he may struggle to trust authority, and that he may see dark motives in others’ actions. His recent statements, however, go beyond reasonable distrust and are a stain on his legacy, which saddens us."
As BU rightfully notes, "one of the tragedies of abuse is how it perpetuates itself across generations." I watched that vicious cycle play out in front of me countless times during two decades covering the crime and justice beat for this paper. It's never an excuse, of course, but it does provide for some important context. Which is why I was heartened to hear what I felt was such a healthy perspective from Fleury back in 2018 — and so heartbroken now to see how far he's strayed from those wise words.
It's one thing when an anonymous Internet troll with an egg avatar and a handful of social media followers starts spewing such vitriol, largely into the abyss. It's another matter entirely when someone as accomplished as Fleury, and with as big a platform, uses it in such a dangerous manner. A quick look at some of the replies to his posts shows there are scores of others who unfortunately share his views.
Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from consequences, and there's no question Fleury has already cost himself in that department. There's a reason he's not currently in the Hockey Hall of Fame — and it has nothing to do with his on-ice performance.
He is a Stanley Cup champion (1989), an Olympic gold medallist (2002) and a world junior gold medallist with a decorated history of international play. The seven-time all-star is one of just 15 players in NHL history to average at least a point per game in both the regular season (1,088 points in 1,084 games) and playoffs (79 points in 77 games). Yet he remains the only member of that elite list to not be in the HHOF, having been snubbed by the panel for 12 straight years of eligibility.
All of this happened, of course, despite wrestling with the many demons caused by being sexually abused by James over a two-year period, beginning when he was just 13. Fleury came forward for the first time in his autobiography, Playing With Fire, writing how his life and career nearly spiralled out of control as he tried to mask his pain in unhealthy ways. That included several off-ice incidents and a drug-related suspension that landed him in the league's substance abuse program.
I wrote a column in June 2020, suggesting it was "inexcusable" that the HHOF committee continued to overlook him, and that his candidacy is actually bolstered when you consider all he had to overcome. Like BU, I can no longer stand by my previous position given Fleury's recent actions. I'd suggest others who have previously feted him — Fleury has been honoured with the Canadian Humanitarian Award and the Queen’s Jubilee Medallion — to follow suit as well.
At this point, he is utterly toxic.
"We call on Fleury to recognize that he is now a person in a position of authority, and to recognize that his actions as an authority put him in a place where he can cause harm to others," BU said in its poignant statement that must have been difficult for officials to pen. "We hope he takes advantage of the resources at his disposal and seeks greater understanding of the science behind the pandemic and the essential public health role of vaccines."
I share that hope as well, and would like to think this might serve as a badly-needed wake-up call for Fleury. As much as we might wish to pile on, this is a man who clearly needs help. Perhaps one day he can truly leave behind the anger and rage that is so evident these days and find the peace, happiness, love, kindness, compassion, humility and vulnerability that continues to elude him.
That's where he needs to get to.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.