Hockey's dark time with sex abuse

Posted: November 15, 2011

RALEIGH, N.C. - By his own admission, former NHL superstar Theo Fleury went 25 years without sleeping a solid wink.

The only time Fleury, who began drinking at the age of 16 after beer was purchased for him by Graham James, the sexual predator Fleury alleges ruled his life for 3 years, ever slept was with the help of alcohol or drugs. Or both.

"I was abused in a dark room," Fleury said in an interview last week with WEEI radio in Boston. "Every time I closed my eyes at night, I went back to that dark room. The booze and the drugs allowed me to pass out and at least not think about it.

"I experimented with marijuana, hash, hash oil, and then figured out that I really liked cocaine. And cocaine and vodka was my cocktail that let me leave all of those emotional scars behind."

Fleury's off-ice scars, which were graphically detailed in his best-selling autobiography "Playing with Fire," paint a first-person picture as to what the young victims in State College, Pa., might be experiencing.

Up until the still-emerging scandal at Penn State, fueled by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged sexual abuse of several boys, Fleury's was the most widely known sexual-abuse story in sports history.

Now 43, Fleury and former teammate and NHL player Sheldon Kennedy have spoken out in recent days for support of the victims at Penn State.

Graham, a prominent junior hockey coach in Canada, pleaded guilty in 1997 to sexually assaulting Kennedy and an unnamed player, and served time in prison. Fleury filed a criminal complaint against Graham in 2010, alleging that he was molested by his coach. The case is still under investiation.

Fleury won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal with Canada and led the NHL in scoring at one point in his 15-year NHL career. Kennedy played in 310 games for Detroit, Calgary and Boston. But their biggest battles in life weren't on the ice. Both Fleury and Kennedy flirted with suicide in addition to their drug and alcohol addictions that they say stemmed from abuse.

In his book, Fleury admitted to 11 failed drug tests during his 2000-01 season with the Rangers, when he spent many nights sleeping on New York streets with the homeless. That season, he posted 74 points in 62 games.

"I found the purpose for my life," Fleury said in the interview. "And that is to help people such as the boys from Penn State. If they wanted me to go and speak with them or hang out with them, I've learned how to cope with the situation. I talk about the subject pretty much nonstop."

Fleury said since the Penn State scandal broke - and he has been bombarded with television, radio and newspaper interviews - his inbox has been "filled with people finding the courage and strength to come forward and reveal they were also abused."

Kennedy said the grand-jury presentment surrounding the accusations against Sandusky in State College is proof that "no institution is exempt" from sexual abuse happening.

According to Kennedy, he was abused by James every Tuesday and Thursday night for 5 years straight, at parent-approved sleepovers.

"The most difficult question is: Why didn't I say anything sooner?" Kennedy asked in a CNN interview with Erin Burnett. "For myself, I needed to come out. I saw a ton of trusted adults, including the coach that was abusing me, not do anything about it."

Kennedy was "not surprised" that no action was taken, even after graduate assistant Mike McQueary came forward with graphic details of Sandusky's alleged actions in 2002. Kennedy relayed that the average pedophile affects more than 100 kids and it takes one child telling seven different adults before something is done.

"I think that learning experiences in life are tough ones," Kennedy said. "I believe looking at Joe Paterno's situation at Penn State, I think he is the ultimate authority at Penn State. I think that Penn State made a statement by saying this is something that won't be tolerated. That was the right thing. He needed to do the right thing and he didn't."

Fleury said he was appalled to read the grand jury's detailed investigation in the Sandusky case.

"What's really sick about the Penn State thing is that Jerry Sandusky set up a charity for these boys," Fleury said. "It was like a factory for him. I really believe that we've just opened up a Pandora's box here. What we normally do in society is to try to cover it up or we have shut up. We just don't talk about it."

The one positive, Kennedy said, is that with the high profile of Penn State's scandal, more victims can get help. Kennedy knows all too well about the "fears and the shame and the guilt" that come with sexual abuse.

"I think that it's a platform for change to happen," Kennedy said. "It's sad that it has to happen this way. I think it has now pole-vaulted this issue into society, saying that enough is enough. We need to change."

For the longest time, Fleury said he convinced himself that it was his own fault that he let his abuse continue for so long. He has since learned that was far from the truth.

"The three biggest words that I have for these victims is that it 'wasn't your fault,' " Fleury said. "As victims, we feel we played some part or some role. But really, we're just young boys trying to figure out life."

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