Review: Playing With Fire by Theo Fleury (2009)

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Playing with Fire (PWF), co-written with Kirstie McLellan Day is Theoren Fleury’s autobiography released at the end of last year and delayed by a postal strike in the UK. It goes off in a different direction to Why I Didn’t Say Anything (WIDSA) by Sheldon Kennedy, despite both players having been abused by Graham James. This means that the two books cross over each other, in the case of PWF, running throughout the first half the book. That’s why they were read and reviewed back to back for this site.

The first main difference to Playing With Fire is the style. Compared to James Grainger’s journalistic tautness in making Kennedy’s book very accessible and quick to read, Fleury’s writing is no-holds-barred upfront, honest, perceptive, cutting, sarcastic, bitter, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, other times extremely angry, reflecting his style of play. The final book reads as if co-writer Kirstie McLellan Day transcribed some sections from recorded interviews, which might explain the odd missed word here and there that suggests dictation rather than composition. The contrasting tone is a reminder that Fleury’s career was longer but the fallout from the abuse was greater, in spite of finishing off with a Native Reservation and quick International Hockey Stint in Northern Ireland.

You’ll read the general setup about Fleury’s early childhood and home life and then Graham James enters the picture around page 23. In this way it’s similar to WIDSA and so is a lot of the grooming process. You get further insight into what happened to both players and the harassment from the media. This gets you to halfway through the book and James isn’t mentioned much until he is charged halfway through, since Fleury was never interviewed properly by the police it was left to Kennedy and so the fallout continued in his personal life, with only one sole interjection representing continued manipulation with James’s setup of his own hockey team and contacting Fleury and Kennedy for financial support. There are other elements to that story which are fleshed out beyond Kennedy’s book, though the media and landlords were the cause of the extended issues this time rather than just James. Just about halfway through you get additional insight into those that continued to support James post-firing, ranging from players to management.

Thankfully for people who know zero about Ice/Hockey, Fleury’s book gives you a potted history of the game, and the players before during and after their careers whether he liked them or not (though there are distinctions about player characters on and off the ice).

In fact, Fleury describes almost everything you could need to know about the sport if you were born outside of Canada, besides the rules (kindly supplied by the BBC at the time of this review, thanks to the Olympics). When talking about referees and coaches  it’s mostly dislike, but described in that blackly humorous way, depending on the coach. Sometimes you do get the sense of scores being settled after being saved up for a long time and you do hope that by writing about it, that level of bitterness is off the author’s chest for the future.

The alcoholism, drugs, affairs and substance abuse problems cascading down from the abuse and negative coping are described with flat-out candour and the suicide attempt which is the preface after Wayne Gretsky’s foreword, happens chronologically 30 pages before the end of the book and represents the de facto rock bottom after which Fleury begins the slow ascent up from the floor of the barrel. His charity drives reflect more about his own health issues, more than just child abuse, as opposed to Kennedy’s nationwide skate.

On minor notes, the pictures are in colour, making for a better hardback package than Kennedy’s book, but sometimes I felt in need of a glossary for the “Fleury-isms” you will find throughout the text – when talking about “clotheslining” a player on the ice you can at least use your imagination, but “puttin’ on a clinic”, “serving [the other team] a pizza”, getting “T-Boned [in a road crash]”…who knows, maybe it’s hockey slang but whilst you struggle to understand the Fleurish you’re reading, it won’t distract enough to take you out of NHL-world, neither will the sports report sections describing the fights with occasional hockey play.

So if you haven’t read either Sheldon Kennedy’s or Theoren Fleury’s books and they come up on a 2 for 1 at Amazon deal (as they normally will at the American site), you really need to read them back to back. This will give you a more rounded picture and also some idea of the way some of the current Olympic Hockey team got to where they are now in the 2010 Olympics, but describing events earlier in their careers.

If the third unnamed player who charged Graham James ever discloses you’ll get the complete triangle. For now Playing With Fire, with its complete abuse to self-destruction and self-rebuilding order, combined with the description of the literal and AA-designed steps taken to have another life after the sport, is well worth the money to survivors as well as fans.

The Amazon pages for the books are as follows;

Canada

US

UK

– CBG

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