I was at the bookstore a few weeks ago looking for a new hockey read, when I picked up Theo Fleury’s Playing with Fire. After reading the first 15 pages or so, I was hooked, so I bought it, and couldn’t put it down. As I was reading, I thought to myself that I would love to speak with Theo, not only because this book is such an amazing read, but also because he offers some great hockey philosophy that I would love to discuss. Thankfully, the former Stanley Cup champion and Olympic Gold medalist was kind enough to chat and do an interview with myself this past Wednesday, and we talked about everything, from Playing with Fire, to Canadian history, to team chemistry, and even a little about a “chicken” jersey.
Nick: Theo, the first thing I noticed when reading Playing with Fire was the raw emotion and honesty that was present. Can you put into words how difficult it was to be so honest?
Theo: It wasn’t difficult at all. From front to back the book is my word, the way I wanted it to be. I was ready to tell my story and not leave anything out.
N: When Fury came out in 1997, you did not write it, but it was supposed to be a behind the scenes look into the life of Theo Fleury. Now I know you said in Playing with Fire that with what was surrounding your life at the time, you were not ready to tell your story, but did it ever cross your mind at all at that time to talk about the past?
T: No, not at all. Never crossed my mind. I just wasn’t ready. I was in the middle of my career at that time, captain of the Flames, and I had many responsibilities towards the Flames organization, as they were paying me a lot of money to perform. My concentration was on the ice.
N: You’ve found a role now as a public/motivational speaker and are helping those suffering from trauma stemming from sexual abuse, how did you get into that? How did it start?
T: It just happened naturally. You know, I guess when people write a book, they get phone calls to be speakers, and it came naturally to me. It’s not that difficult when you’re speaking of your life and your experiences.
N: It just kind of flows naturally then doesn’t it.
T: Yeah, as long as you speak from your heart.
N: You have also been speaking about residential schooling and the trauma many Natives had to deal with from that. It’s a tough topic that many people are uncomfortable with, as it shines a negative light on Canadian history. Do you feel it’s important to look at both sides of history, positive and negative, to really understand the past and move forward?
T: Yeah, absolutely. What the Aboriginal people were put through was, well, I don’t even have a word to describe it. The trickle down effect today from what happened with residential schools in the past is quite astonishing and shocking. Here’s my theory on it. The explorers came and discovered North America, and the Church came with it, bringing abuse and control. Now, I think we’re seeing, very shortly anyways, the end of organized religion. It’s done more damage than good over the years. I say I’m a recovering Catholic and Jehovah Witness, as I was exposed to both growing up. It made me confused and fearful. When I got back to my roots as an Aboriginal, it’s about Mother Earth and the real spirituality. It’s when my life took a 180 in the right direction.
N: As a university student, learning about the residential schools and the horrors that accompanied them is something I’ve learned a lot about, but it’s not part of traditional schooling. It may be a negative Canadian history, but you can’t understand what lies ahead until you have understood the past. It can be related to hockey in a sense to. I know you’ve talked about escalating salaries and pampered players, yet many don’t understand how we’ve gotten to this point, and the efforts made in the past to start a player’s union by players such as Ted Lindsay.
T: Yeah, if you’re a player in the NHL today, and you don’t know who Ted Lindsay is, or who Gordie Howe is, that’s a shame. Now we’re seeing the efforts of what those guys tried to build, and if you don’t know who they are, and what they’ve done, then you shouldn’t be allowed to play in the NHL. It’s like the residential schools. If you lose your culture, you lose your language, lose your traditions, you lose everything. If we don’t remember where we came from, we cannot move forward.
N: Exactly. Speaking of debated history, the Punch Up in Piestany has been debated for years. Many loved how Canadians stuck up for themselves, yet many thought the brawl with the Russians was a disgrace. One of those people who thought it was a disgrace was reporter Brian Williams. I really don’t think he understood the situation. Have you ever talked with him on his thoughts surrounding the event?
T: Well here’s the thing, the Russians jumped off the bench first. For us to stay on the bench would have looked bad. He obviously didn’t understand what the game was like at that time, hell, we used to be in line brawls every game in the WHL. It was a chippy game, the Russians had no shot at the gold, it was just one of those games where tempers flared.
N: Now in Playing with Fire, you give a lot of interesting hockey philosophy. I know you said no in the book to ever coaching, but you love helping kids in the game, so have you ever though about coaching youth hockey?
T: Well I did my hockey school for 15 straight years. It was a lot of work, and after those 15 years we needed to take a break. The kids who went to my school are adults now and they say to me how it was such a great experience of their childhood.
N: But have you actually thought about getting behind the bench?
T: No, and it’s because I can’t relate to the kids nowadays. I’m an old school guy, and you can’t handle the kids the way we were handled back in the day.
N: Is it because there is too much pampering of kids today?
T: Yeah, and I’m not going to pamper anyone. That would never happen. I would rather stay out of any controversy and observe from afar.
N: One hockey philosophy theme present in your book is about the role of intimidation in the game, not just fighting, but intimidation. You give many examples (ex, McSorley and Gretzky), what are your thoughts on its state in the game today? And what do you think of “pest” type players like Sean Avery and Patrick Kaleta?
T: There are always going to be those types of guys (Avery/Kaleta), but what’s changed is we used to police the game ourselves; it was the players who policed the game. But when concussions became more prominent, the NHL decided to take discipline into their own hands. But there has also been a loss of respect. Not just in hockey, but as a society in general. We’re seeing the evolution of the internet age really. Where clowns of Twitter can hide in their basement and make comments they won’t be accountable for. There’s a lack of respect for almost anything, it’s sad. Growing up if we did anything disrespectful, we got a bony-handed backhand to the lips, and I tell you, I never did something I shouldn’t have again.
N: It seems like it was an effective deterrent, but that can’t happen anymore can it?
T: Nope, yet I look back and realize sometimes I was being an asshole and I deserved it.
N: Now I mentioned Sean Avery, and you mention in the book that guys like this can disrupt locker room chemistry. I find that without a certain bond and chemistry, even at the levels I’ve played at, it’s tough to ice a successful team. So lets say hypothetically you’re the GM of a team. Do you focus on team chemistry, or the use of new systems such as CORSI, that are like a sabermetric, Moneyball, stat-driven way to build a team?
T: Here’s how I see it. If your talent doesn’t work hard every night, you have zero chance of winning, but if they give it their all, you have a shot. Look at Calgary’s start this year, why have they been successful? They work hard every night, and force the other teams to match that work ethic. Calgary has established they have to outwork the other team every night, and it will give them a chance to win.
N: Yeah, and Calgary may not have the big names and talent level of elite teams, yet they have such an aggressive style of play, they don’t let the opposition breathe.
T: And they can skate, they’re going to wear teams down over 60 minutes. They keep coming in waves.
N: So how much importance then would you give to those CORSI type statistics in building a team?
T: None. I want as much talent as I can, but I want guys that work hard. My best players have to be my hardest workers every shift. You watch some guys and wonder where that extra effort is.
N: The Oilers have an abundance of talented players, are they not working hard enough, or is there another reason for lack of success?
T: No, they’re still learning how to play the game and gain experience. All those skilled guys have never had to worry about playing a game without the puck, they’ve usually been in control, now they have to go get the puck. It’s a huge learning curve. It’s a huge step to go from junior to the pro game. I don’t care who you are everyone has an adjustment period.
N: And there is also so much pressure on these prospects, many of which are only 18/19 years old. For instance look at Drouin in Tampa. Many wondered why Yzerman sent him back, yet he’s still just a kid entering adulthood who is still growing both mentally and physically.
T: I think with Drouin, his body hasn’t caught up to his talent yet. Once he gets bigger, he’s going to be a great player. So for now, letting him go back to junior and dominate will help his confidence. It’s better than having him play 6-7 minutes a game in the NHL.
N: And with those 6-7 minutes, he won’t be able to show his true talents either.
T: Exactly, he may get some power-play time, but he won’t learn much, won’t get to be a complete player. Look at Crosby. When he first came in, his faceoff percentage was very low, but he kept working at it, and practicing at it helped him become an even better overall player. The coach can turn to him for any situation. You need those types of guys who can be counted on whatever the situation.
N: What do you think about the two rookies in Toronto and Calgary right now, in Morgan Rielly and Sean Monahan? Are these guys close to being that well-rounded player who can be relied on in any situation?
T: Yeah, absolutely. They’ve proven they belong. And kudos to the scouting staff of both teams for recognizing these two were ready to play this level.
N: Now it wouldn’t be an interview with Theo Fleury if I didn’t talk about “the goal,” the highlight you’re most remembered for versus Edmonton in the ’91 playoffs, scoring in OT in game six, then sliding across the ice on your knees. How often do people come up and talk to you about that goal?
T: (laughs) Oh man, every time I’m at an event, I’ve even run into some Oilers fans as well who talk about it, but if you play long enough, you wind up with a defining moment in your career.
N: And at least you get to say it’s a positive defining moment, unlike someone like poor Brett Hull, who gets razzed numerous times a week for his Cup-winning goal in 1999 against the Sabres. Now I have one last question Theo. Playing in Tappara in Finland during the 1994/95 lockout, you wore that teams “chicken” logo jersey. Do you still have the jersey? I would love to see it.
T: Haha I was the only guy on the team with the “chicken” logo due to different sponsors, even my jersey number was 95.7 after the local radio station. But it’s in the basement, I’ll take a picture and Tweet it.
And there you have it folks, the reason why the main image is of Theo’s crazy looking jersey. Thanks again for chatting Theo, and if you want to learn more about Theo and what he is doing in the near future, head to theofleury14.com for more information.