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Former NHL star Theo Fleury looks to second career -- helping others

11/12/2014 01:54 EST | Updated 01/12/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Theo Fleury has come a long way.

The former NHL star has seemingly escaped the chokehold of addiction and now wears a smile on his face. His mission today is to help others escape their emotional pain.

Fleury chronicles his spiritual journey in a new book called "Conversations With a Rattlesnake," co-written with therapist Kim Barthel.

"Helping is healing" is a key theme.

"It's my purpose," Fleury writes. "I honestly believe it's more important than my hockey career. I was put on this earth to help."

Fleury calls Barthel the "Wayne Gretzky of therapy." She says Fleury's intellectual capacity is "pretty extraordinary," shown by his ability to take in information, assimilate it and act on it.

Now 46, Fleury still sees himself as a work in progress. But his life journey is no longer two steps forward, one step back.

"It's only a half-a-step back now or a quarter step back," Fleury said in a recent interview. "Because I have tools."

"Nice," interjected Barthel.

"Whereas before I didn't have any tools," Fleury continued. "I reached in my toolbox and I couldn't even build a square box ... because I didn't have anything. Now I have a few screws, a screwdriver. So I can build some stuff."

The exchange, in the restaurant of a downtown hotel, reads like an excerpt from "Conversations With a Rattlesnake."

The book is written in the form of an extended conversation between Fleury and his therapist. It's the product of "two and a half years of constant conversation," according to Barthel.

"The difficulty was I couldn't keep up with Theo," she said. "He would change so fast, that all of the transcripts from the recordings, they were way out of date by the time I would get to them.

"In essence everything got written in about four months. But the transformational process was over a two-and-a-half year conversation — daily conversation."

Barthel, who now teaches therapists, says it is not traditional therapy — if for no other reason that no one would have as much access to a therapist as Fleury did. It was also a collaborative, rather than a patient-therapist, relationship.

Fleury evolved over the months, with the first 18 months leading up to the real meat of the discussion.

The book comes in a challenging format. But the give-and-take between the two does show movement and how they reached their conclusions. It's like being a silent partner in a marathon self-help session.

Chapter titles include "It's Not My Fault," "What We Say is More Than Words," "Relentless Positivity," "Shame Revisits" and "Walk With Thousands."

It's the kind of book that will be well-worn, with more than a few highlighted passages, for some readers.

"We can all be a conduit for healing," said Fleury.

He has proved to be just that. Barthel says people seem drawn to the former hockey player by his honesty and vulnerability, reasoning that if he can change his life so can they.

"It's actually miraculous," she said. "I haven't really got enough adjectives to describe it."

People approach Fleury everywhere. "He can't even go to the bathroom," said Barthel.

"We have had some incredible moments of reveals," said Fleury. "It would just warm your heart that people look to you as somebody who's safe."

Fleury, who has no complaints about being a people magnet, says part of his success is that people understand he is on their side. They know he not going to judge them or use their "deepest darkest secrets" against them.

And he understands that part of helping others is not interjecting yourself.

"You're just holding the space which allows them to talk about these things that have happened to them in their life," said Fleury. "They don't want comments. If they want, they'll ask. They'll ask for what they want. But you don't provide anything other than 'I'm just going to hold the space for you.'"

"And occasionally asking the right question," adds Barthel.

Barthel has her own rule of rule of thumb — not to offer advice unless someone asks three times.

Fleury's autobiography, "Playing with Fire," co-written by Kirstie McLellan Day, was released in 2009. An HBO Canada documentary, "Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire," came out in 2012.

Both detail his life spiral. The bleak image of Fleury standing outside a Chicago crackhouse he used to frequent is hard to forget.

The two faces of Fleury are captured on the cover photo of "Conversations With a Rattlesnake."

There's the black-and-white shot of Fleury from the past, his face covered with an unhealthy sheen of sweat. And next to it, a colour shot of a smiling Fleury today.

One is a survival face that says "Stay away," Fleury explains. The other says "Come ....I've got something you might want to try."

These days there is a glow about Fleury, who says he has not had a drink or used drugs in nine years. He says his story of abuse is part of him, but does not define him.

"I don't wear the Scarlet Letter any more. I've gotten rid of it. And that's why I want other people to come to the realization," he said.

"Because I look at my parents, I look at Graham James, I look at the lowest points of his life, I look at them as gifts now. Because without those gifts, I still have that face. With those gifts I have this face now."

James was convicted in 2012 for hundreds of sexual assaults on Fleury and his cousin, Todd Holt, when they played for him in the Western Hockey League in the late 1980s and early '90s. An Appeal Court later extended his sentence to five years from two.

Fleury and Barthel first met in May 2012 in Winnipeg at a presentation by Barthel. Fleury, who was also a speaker at the conference, called it "a thunderbolt of brilliance."

He walked up to an unsuspecting Barthel afterwards to say she had changed his life and that they were going to work together from then on.

"It was amazing. It was like you were explaining me inside and out and I didn't feel threatened by it," Fleury writes in the book. "One hell of a liberating combination. I guess we should never underestimate the potential for finding help when we least expect it."

Today they are friends "before anything else," according to Fleury.

"But when you have a close friendship or relationship, you should have these kind of conversations," said Fleury.

Those with little experience of therapists might be surprised to learn that the growth in the book seems on both sides

"If you're a really good therapist, it's always a learning experience," said Barthel, who opens up about her past in the book. "Part of the process is 'Healer, heal thyself.'"

Fleury says Barthel helped him understand his trauma started early in life. Fleury believes he was shaped by an upbringing that included an alcoholic father and depressed mother. The book discusses in depth the chemistry of the brain and how the way you are treated can modify it.

"The book is about finally taking a look at that family of origin trauma where I understand why my brain is defective," Fleury said.

Barthel jumps in again to warn against the use of "defective" as negative language.

So would she call him out on it if that exchange had been in the book? "I just did," she replied.

"Which tells you that therapy is for the rest of your life," Fleury added. "There's no beginning and there's no end. There's only learning and experiences."

His own brand of spirituality — a mixed bag of everything from organized religion to aboriginal spiritual teachings — has played a huge part in Fleury's road to recovery.

"For me spirituality was the way back to self," he said. "I don't care what you believe in. It's not my journey and spirituality is very personal. I suggest that you try everything."

Fleury, who has been married twice and has four children, who has just embarked on a new relationship.

He is constantly on the move these days, be it speaking, accepting an honorary doctorate in Guelph or giving a speech in Helsinki. Fleury reckons he is on the road 200 days a year while Barthel is at 300.

Fleury is also making music, writing and singing rockabilly/country songs for his band Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Rebels. A record and tour are in the works.

It's all a far cry from his hockey days. But it somehow makes sense for Fleury.

"Because I'm a big thinker, I always felt there was something greater than my hockey career," he said. "I just didn't know what it was."

Today he does. He knows his life purpose.

"That's to share my story and be vulnerable, and not really care about what the world thinks about what I'm doing. All I know is the feedback that I get back is more positive than negative."

The former Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks forward still watches hockey "but with not as much interest and not as much invested."

"Because someday I would like people to say 'Oh, Theo Fleury, the spiritual guy and philosopher. Didn't he used to play hockey?' That would be kind of neat."

— "Conversations With a Rattlesnake," by Theo Fleury and Kim Barthel, Influence Publishing, $26.95

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