The odds were stacked against him, but that didn’t stop Theo Fleury from becoming a Stanley Cup champion. Now his story is being told on stage in the Prairie Theatre Exchange’s production of Playing With Fire: The Theo Fleury Story.
“He’s not your typical hockey player,” director Ron Jenkins says on the phone from Edmonton, where the play is being performed before moving east to Winnipeg.
“He was just this small, poor kid from Russell, Manitoba who would do anything to make it into the NHL because he loves hockey so much.”
Fleury got his start playing for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League before working his way up to the NHL. He was one of the league’s smallest players at 5’6’’ and only 180 pounds.
He was with the Calgary Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989. Throughout his career he also played for the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks despite being an alcoholic and battling drug addictions, which finally forced him out of the NHL in 2003.
Fleury’s autobiography Playing With Fire was co-written by Kirstie McLellan Day, who also wrote the script for this play. The book reveals lesser known details about Fleury’s life and talks about how he was sexually abused by former Western Hockey League coach Graham James.
“I love hockey and I love the theatre so I jumped on board at the opportunity to direct this play,” Jenkins says.
“Theo is an incredible human being and I think he was really honest, fearless and courageous to come forward and tell his story in the way that he did.”
The original draft was set in a hotel room, but Jenkins insisted the stage be turned into a hockey rink to make it even more realistic.
“His life was about hockey, things happened to him because of hockey so we wanted to make it as accurate as possible. The hardest thing was just trying to be as faithful and as honest as we could to him. We did consult with Fleury himself to make sure we’re telling his story the way he would want it to be told.”
Playing the role of Fleury is Shaun Smyth, a Calgary-based actor who has worked in various theatre and television projects throughout his career.
Smyth doesn’t have a hockey background and spent a year training for the role which requires him to skate around the stage on a sheet of synthetic ice.
“I’ve known Shaun since his university days and he’s a terrific actor who gets it and even looks like Theo. I think honesty and intelligence are the two biggest things that he brings to the role,” Jenkins says.
While the script is geared towards hockey fans and features some iconic on-ice moments, Jenkins says anyone should be able to enjoy this play even if they don’t care about the sport.
“We have lots of people who aren’t hockey fans coming to see it and none of them really know who he is, but they’re still uplifted by his story. When you take away hockey this could be about anyone and it’s an incredible story and a great piece of theatre.”