"Playing with Fire" is the autobiography of Theoren Fleury, co-written with Kirsten McLellan Day. In it, Mr. Fleury tells how he grew up in a difficult circumstance with an alcoholic father and emotionally withdrawn mother. He explains how hockey becomes his escape, how it allows him to come in contact with coaches and families who are more stable and supportive, and nurture his talents. This reliance on external authority figures while salutary at first turns disastrous when he comes into the sphere of influence of hockey coach and convicted pedophile Graham James.
This section of the book is difficult to read, but also fascinating and somewhat incomprehensible. The reader who hasn't had the same background and thus doesn't suffer from the same vulnerability is aghast that the author doesn't speak out or talk to the police or have some other like reaction to his situation. Without making light of the circumstances, this reviewer found himself comparing the decision-making and turns of events to the protagonists in a horror movie, and asking himself: "Why doesn't he do such and such, instead of that." In this way, the book is enlightening and serves to make the reader understand what the assault victim is subjected to and how she/he responds differently than 'common sense' would seem to indicate they should.
While the book is illuminating on this subject, it is not very insightful, and once again I have to lay the blame on the co-author. Ms. McLellan Day also worked with Bob Probert on his autobiography "Tough Guy", and my suspicions at the time I read it that she's at most a transcriber of words spoken into a voice recorder seem more founded after reading another book by her on hockey. She allows the subjects to recount their life and experiences with very little introspection or any questions to probe further or challenge them. As such, the books she co-writes are much less than they can be. The reader is left to wish that a capable author with knowledge of her subject matter, whether it be hockey or the pathology of sexual abuse, had been trusted with this project.
Mr. Fleury eventually escapes the clutches of Graham James and plays in the AHL and NHL, but by this point the material in the book becomes less gripping, and repetitive. This may be because his career peaks very early, and then declines somewhat as he is stuck on mediocre teams. The seasons pass, and the anecdotes all sound similar, and most are unhappy ones.
He is forthright about his alcohol and drug abuse, but also somewhat dismissive of their effects on his career and his team. He often describes a 'party' he participates in, which are invariably not so much festive as an opportunity to ingest great quantities of intoxicants, and then how well he performed the next day in a game, which is his 'Get Out of Jail Free' card of preference. He seldom delves into the effect his behaviour has on his team and teammates, and how much better he might have performed without the deleterious effects it has on his health and conditioning. Of course, the reader is aware that a lot of the passion and intensity in Mr. Fleury's play derives from his background and his battle with his demons; with players such as he you can't really tease apart the good from the bad. Mr. Fleury is a person that needs to be taken as a whole, to selectively amputate certain aspects of his existence would yield a different person entirely, not merely a healthy and productive Theo.
Graham James re-enters Mr. Fleury's life later on in his career, incomprehensibly, but by this time the reader doesn't need to be reminded that he hasn't 'walked a mile in his shoes', and can't really understand the inner workings of his mind.
The end of the book is unfortunate in that it follows Mr. Fleury's career arc. Again, the reader is left to wish that things had turned out differently, although all is not lost. While Mr. Fleury isn't as financially stable as he could have been, he has patched up a few relationships along the way and is struggling to find inner peace, and seems to have his substance abuse under control.
This reviewer is not sure he can recommend this book to readers unless they are fans of Mr. Fleury or the Calgary Flames. Certainly, Canadiens fans will find it difficult to relive the loss in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals as seen from the other side. If anything, this book makes one wish that a talented biographer had taken on this project, and had had access to Mr. Fleury and his family and loved ones and teammates and opponents. There is no question that we would have had a much richer, fuller portrait of the man.