After reading the first dozen pages of Theo Fleury’s autobiography, “Playing With Fire,” it’s impossible not to get hooked. One of the greatest NHLers of his generation, scoring over 400 goals and 1,000 points during his career, Fleury was known for both his stellar play on the ice and his wild antics off it. A charismatic enigma, poster boy for hard work and determination, yet victim of his own exuberance and lust for acceptance, the former Calgary Flames captain’s story is one of a kind.
Capturing his ups and downs with the help of Kirstie McLellan Day, Fleury’s life becomes so intriguing that you’ll feel yourself going through every trial and tribulation, feeling the brevity of the highs, as the well as the tumultuous weight of the lows he’s had to endure, such as sexual abuse and the devils of drugs and alcohol. Few hockey autobiographies provide this type of connection between writer and reader and as a result, the book is an engaging and fulfilling read throughout.
During the high times, it’s hard to stop reading and leave the rest of a chapter for another time, as Fleury is witty, charming and at times, gregarious and pompous, but in the best way possible, totally embracing the bad boy motif that made him a fan favorite wherever he played. However, during the dark times, you’ll often feel your stomach seizing up, as things get quite emotional. Hearing Fleury’s stories of sexual abuse and his plummet to near suicide is a tough pill to swallow, and you’ll find yourself needing to take a breath and watch a Disney movie to cheer yourself up. For those of the faint of heart, it’s hard to get through these pages, as they are full of detail and show both the exploitation of a young star and the decline of a confused and weary soul.
All stories don’t have a happy ending, and while it seems that Fleury has conquered most of his demons, you get the feeling that everything isn’t nearly as cut and dry as he makes it seem by the end of the book. In spite of that, you can’t help but root for the guy, who, again, is as sly as a used car salesman and as down to earth as a bartender.
Promising throughout that he’s not trying to be preachy, Fleury’s words are crafted in an everyman tone that will make them easily acceptable and identifiable with hockey fans around the world. As a matter of fact, aside from the stories about his life, hearing Fleury’s thoughts on many of the players he’s played against throughout his storied career is perhaps the most fun part of the book and the sections that most hockey fans will enjoy. Honest, but brash at times, you can’t get more entertaining than hearing Fleury share his feelings about Mike Keenan, Patrick Roy, Roman Hamrlik and countless other players he’s encountered over the years.
If there was one word that conveyed the emotion necessary to describe the feeling you’ll have when he speaks his mind about the hockey, it would have to be “classic.” Hilarious, yet candid, Fleury is an excellent storyteller that deserves your attention.
Feeling like “Forrest Gump” meets “Slapshot,” with the drama of a lifetime movie thrown in for good measure, “Playing With Fire” is a tale that gets a tad hot at times, but in the end, any crosses left won’t be yours to bear. If anything, Fleury wants you to learn from his mistakes, and by being as open as he has in this work, it’s impossible not to.