First impressions aren’t always right

It's easy to criticize those whose falls from grace are made public.

As humans, we have all done it at one point or another.

Perhaps it is human instinct or a subconscious need to make ourselves feel better, but whatever the reason, we have all, myself included, judged someone without knowing their story and in many cases even knowing them on a personal level.

Earlier this month former NHLer Theo Fleury appeared at the Port Theatre as part of the Coast Salish Hope and Health Evening for Champions event, where he spoke about his battle with drugs, alcohol and experiences as a victim of sexual abuse and fall from grace in the NHL.

As I sat listening to the former Calgary Flames star speak about how he became an alcoholic and began abusing drugs, I started to think back to all the times I had heard about his problems on and off the ice in the sports media. I remember all the times I had heard people lash out at him and criticize him for his behaviour. I also realized that I was, in some ways, one of those people.

There was one sentence that really stuck with me during his incredible speech at the Port Theatre on July 8.

“I was buying vodka by the case,” Fleury said.

That statement for one reason or another, made everything I had ever read or heard about his personal problems make sense. I realized that all his struggles were not simply because he was some spoiled superstar who was out of control, but that they were because he was suffering through hell on a daily basis.

For those who need a refresher, Fleury played over 1,000 games in the NHL between 1988 and 2003. Although he won a Stanley Cup with the Flames in 1989 and an Olympic gold medal in 2002, his playing career is often remembered by many as one filled with frequent on and off-ice incidents, including multiple suspensions for violating the NHL’s substance abuse program.

One of those incidents occurred while Fleury was playing for the New York Rangers. In 2002 he was fined for making obscene gestures to an opposing team’s fans after a fan taunted him about his substance abuse problems.

“I don’t mind the booing and all that stuff,” Fleury was once quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “But when you get personal, you’re crossing the line.”

Following retirement from professional hockey, Fleury released his autobiography, Playing with Fire, where he revealed that between 1983 and 1985 he had been sexually assaulted multiple times by his former junior hockey coach, Graham James.

I was too young to remember Fleury’s glory days with the Flames, but I was old enough to watch his fall from grace in the public spotlight. I remember thinking ‘This guy doesn’t care about the game. He’s just another spoiled NHLer who makes millions of dollars and has lost touch with his roots.’

Some will argue that athletes deserve the treatment when they’re making the millions of dollars they make. As a sports fan I am all for heckling poor play. To me, that is part of the game. However, to criticize an athlete for being an alcoholic or having a drug addiction without understanding their story is wrong.

When I look back at Fleury’s fall from grace, I realize that this was a man who was able to play hockey at an extremely high level for years, while enduring a personal nightmare every single night. Based on Fleury’s experiences, I can’t say I wouldn’t have gone the same route as him. How am I to say I wouldn’t have done the things he did?

Fleury’s speaking engagement in Nanaimo came on my 25th birthday. After the event was finished I ran into Fleury outside of the theatre, where he was standing with no one around him. I went up and thanked him, not just for sharing his story, but also for inspiring me.

arts@nanaimobulletin.comTwitter: @npescod