Theo Fleury shaking the demons

Theo Fleury travels far and wide to support such child abuse treatment projects as Be Brave Ranch. Katie Strang/ESPN

CALGARY, Alberta -- It's been nine years and two weeks since former NHL star Theo Fleury had a drink. It's been almost 11 years from the time he bought a gun in a Santa Fe, New Mexico, pawn shop, drove home, put the barrel in his mouth and thought about pulling the trigger.

He doesn't miss the drinking. In fact, he said he doesn't even remember the last drink he had.

He no longer has suicidal thoughts. He never even really wanted to kill himself, he said. He just wanted to stop the pain that tormented him each and every day.

He doesn't seem to miss his NHL playing days either. Doesn't keep in touch with many of his old hockey buddies. His tight-knit inner circle now includes an Irishman who manages his band, Theo Fleury and The Death Valley Rebels, a Serbian peace officer he met at his sons' soccer game and a former AHL tough guy who now works in the drilling business.

Distance from his former life has provided him perspective. Fleury, 46, would be happy if none of the things from his past defined him. He'd be thrilled if, looking back at his life, someone were to remark: "Hey, you know, he was a pretty good hockey player too."

"I would love that," Fleury told ESPN.com in a lengthy sit-down interview last week. "Hockey was the vehicle and it gave me everything I have, but it was only the first 35 years of my life. I still have 35 years left to live, and I certainly want to make a difference in the next 35."

Though he leaves behind an indelible legacy on the ice, the former Stanley Cup champion, Olympic gold medalist, Canada Cup winner and World Junior champion has a new purpose in life.

He wants to help. He wants others to heal.

"I chose to live my life -- every little detail -- publicly because I know how many people it's helped. I know how many people have taken the noose off their neck, I know how many people have put the gun down, how many people that have not taken the whole bottle of pills," Fleury said. "What I want to encourage people is, it's OK to tell your story. One day you're going to tell your story, and it's going to save someone's life."

As much as his 15-year NHL career was first defined by success -- amassing 455 goals, 633 assists and 1,840 penalty minutes as one of the league's most fearless competitors, defying every skeptic who doubted he could make a difference at 5-foot-6 -- his life has also been defined by events that transpired before he burst onto the scene as a rookie and won a Cup in Calgary in 1988-89. Those events contributed to his wild and well-documented tailspin, leading to a career cut short by drug and alcohol abuse.

Fleury grew up in Russell, Manitoba, to a father who struggled with alcoholism and a mother who was addicted to pills. Life wasn't easy, but Fleury found hockey at a young age -- a passion so pure and blinding that he never once doubted he'd make it to the NHL.

Though Fleury now identifies his family as the genesis of some of his most deep-seated issues (Fleury says he grew up fearing abandonment, finding himself unlovable, not good enough), it was another particular trauma during his teenage years that compounded matters entirely.

Fleury was sexually abused by his junior hockey coach Graham James, a harrowing experience he detailed in his acclaimed 2009 book, "Playing with Fire." It shattered his belief system, his ability to trust others, and it triggered the self-loathing that would fuel his problems for years to come.

He speaks about the abuse now with little emotion or hostility. Though he spoke out against James' lenient sentence in 2012 (a judge increased the sentence in 2013 from two years to five years), Fleury is motivated less by the idea of justice and more by the idea of forgiveness and healing.

"I've come to the point where I realized what happened to me was actually a gift," Fleury said. "My family of origin was actually a gift. Graham James was a gift. Why? It forced me to look at who I am, the true me, and I like that guy."

* * *

"I am real/I am me/I am free"
-- "I Am Who I Am," Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Rebels

* * *

Fleury met therapist Kim Barthel at a conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She was a keynote speaker on resilience and healing within the First Nations communities who, in light of a cancellation by another speaker, was asked to prolong her presentation.

She wasn't a hockey fan. Still isn't, despite her husband Bob's zealous fandom for the Montreal Canadiens. She remembered seeing Fleury's face on the cover of "Playing with Fire" and being so put off by his demeanor that she didn't even want to read it.

But Fleury sought her out after she spoke, telling her she had just changed his life. And that they needed to work together.

The two have since co-authored the book "Conversations with a Rattlesnake: Raw and Honest Reflections on Healing and Trauma," which will be released next month.

On the surface, the two have virtually nothing in common. The boisterous Fleury is a ball of energy, telling stories with a gravelly, Marlboro-studded distinction while interspersing curse words with the same frequency most people use commas. Barthel is a petite blonde who exudes both motherly warmth and a chic, worldly sophistication. She doesn't battle Fleury for the stage, but she skillfully interjects in a way that disarms him almost immediately.

"Maybe you'd like to share that story," she'll prod. "Would you feel comfortable talking about the time ..." and off Fleury will go, deconstructing his issues, talking about his progress and using terms such as "disassociating" and "attachment" in the process.

She doesn't flinch at anything. After working with trauma victims from multiple First Nations reservations in her native Canada and Inuit communities in the Arctic, there is little that rattles her.

Fleury and she do not have a traditional therapist-client relationship. Instead, they prefer to call it a "therapeutic friendship" in which they have "healing conversations." And at the end of the day, they are business partners. They will be trekking across Canada beginning next month for their upcoming book tour.

It's unconventional. But it works. The two are fiercely protective of each other and have slowly begun adopting the other's tendencies.

"Now I'm the one that says 'f---,' and he uses words like 'dopamine," she said, joking. "If I start getting tattoos, then we'll know I've really slipped over the edge."

That they can work together, and talk through personal issues that have plagued Fleury almost his entire life, is a feat in and of itself. Barthel said that when they first met, her probing would often be met with an abrupt, "I don't know" or "whatever," anything for him to avoid connecting an actual feeling and putting it into words.

On this day, she scrunches up her shoulders and wrinkles her nose, beaming with pride when Fleury expounds on his thoughts, a mark of progress that seems to have baffled them both.

"It's a f---ing miracle," Fleury said. Barthel nods.

That they found each other is something Fleury and Barthel find serendipitous. With Barthel's training and experience, specializing in relational trauma and sensory processing, and Fleury's high profile in the sports world and throughout Canada, they feel they can combine to make a difference in helping other victims of trauma deal with the pain.

* * *

"The long road to misery is one I know so well/You've got to keep on moving if you're going through hell"
-- "Road to Misery," Theo Fleury and the Death Valley Rebels

* * *

Some vestiges of Fleury's hockey playing days remain. Like the scar on his upper lip, his stubborn unwillingness to eat breakfast (unless his daily morning ritual of two coffees and a half-pack of cigarettes counts) and his superstition of smacking the dashboard of his car with his hand when going through a traffic light.

He wears flip-flop sandals, even with the temperature dropping to a brisk chill, like on this Saturday, when he visited the opening of the Be Brave Ranch in Edmonton, Alberta, an event so important to him that he wanted to be there in person to lend his support.

Fleury, bundled up with a blue velour blanket that earns him some good-natured ribbing from the hearty Edmontonians in the crowd, watches as each person who played a role in the ranch's long-awaited opening is recognized by founder Glori Meldrum. She is the founder of Little Warriors, a charity that "educates adults how to help prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse." Be Brave Ranch is her brainchild.

"If I could have had a left winger like Glori on my team, I probably would've won a few more Stanley Cups and gold medals," Fleury said, joking.

As Fleury tours the ranch, he stops for each fan who wants a picture. He stoops down to talk to a child who is also a hockey player. He stops to chat with practically everyone he sees, most of them people he has met through his advocacy work in the past.

He gives Kelli Benis a huge hug when they pass the entrance. The two met at the Victor Walk in Ottawa in 2013, an event that both credit as being a life-changing experience.

Benis, also a child sex abuse survivor, has never felt the same since deciding to join Fleury on his 10-day trek from Toronto to Ottawa -- a march to promote awareness and shed the shame for sexual abuse survivors. She said it helped her rid herself of the shame and guilt that she never even realized was causing her so much turmoil in her daily life. She believes Fleury's public battle with the effects of sexual abuse have emboldened others to get involved.

"I felt like mine was just one small voice," Benis said. "But for him, people definitely listened."

Then there's Alison Lee, a spunky, blond 17-year-old who comes bounding up to greet him as he arrives. Lee, an outspoken young survivor who helped raise funds for the ranch by selling sponsored Christmas lights, insisted on giving him a tour of the ranch personally and bosses him around gleefully with no thought to his star status.

"Get in here. You have to feel this carpet," Lee instructed, making Fleury feel the plush purple rug in one of the group therapy rooms.

The ranch, which Fleury helped promote and advocate, will provide a treatment center for child sex abuse survivors ages 8-12 to heal, along with their families. They will have access to music and art therapy and other amenities to aid in the "treatment and healing, aimed at the mind, body, heart and spirit of child victims and their families," according to the ranch's mission. The facility is outfitted with an ice rink (aptly named "Theo Fleury's Rink of Courage"), a sweat lodge and a playhouse.

"If I'd had a place like this, my whole life would've been completely different," Fleury remarked at the unveiling, speaking as much to himself as to anyone else.

The grand opening follows a long, arduous battle with the government for funding -- a fight that was unsuccessful, forcing Meldrum to raise the money privately.

Having Fleury's voice supporting her and spreading the word was a huge boost toward that end.

"Theo's just an authentic, true guy," Meldrum told ESPN.com. "He's just an honest, ethical person, and he's helped us a lot."

* * *

"Let them understand/All we wanna do/Is let the daylight in/So let the daylight in"
--"Walk with Thousands," Theo Fleury and Phil Deschambault

* * *

Fleury didn't always see this as his path.

Even when Fleury confronted his demons and publicly denounced James, he was terrified. When he detailed almost every painful and shocking element of his addictions in his first book (Fleury said he was addicted to it all: booze, drugs, women, gambling, food, you name it), he still didn't feel entirely secure with himself.

But at one of his first book signings, at a Toronto location of the Canadian bookstore Chapters, he was struck by something that happened.

He was surprised by the number of people who showed up, yet one man in particular caught his attention. The guy clutched the book to his chest fiercely but grew increasingly agitated as he stood in line, bailing on the queue and then finally returning to thrust the book at the table, leaning in to tell Fleury:

"Me too."

It would be the first of many times complete strangers -- adults, children, even offenders -- would confide their experiences to Fleury. He said there are few days now that he isn't approached, a fact that reaffirms just how widespread the issue is and how much of an impact can be had.

Fleury has found healing through helping, but that doesn't mean there still isn't plenty of room for growth.

He has not achieved some arbitrary form of enlightenment. Some days, those old doubts and fears creep up. He still finds himself being triggered with anger, though he is better equipped to handle his emotions and quell what use to surface as rage. He is still working on his relationships too, with his four kids, his mother and his second wife (they are in the midst of a divorce).

But despite the ups and downs, Fleury has found peace with himself, a priority.

"I like me for the first time in my life," he said. "I like me, and that was never the case before. That's why I did all the things I did. I didn't like me."

He's no longer deking past defensemen, scoring flashy goals or chirping at his opponents. But he's happy with all that he's left behind. He's found something that means, to him, so much more.

"I believe this was my purpose in life," Fleury said. "I mean, I'm a f---ing fighter, right?"