The popular television series Friday Night Lights has a special resonance for those who have been influenced by and recognize the deep relationship between a specific sport and country whose national identity is affiliated with it. In Friday Night Lights that “country” is Texas and their sport is Football. In Canada it is hockey. As a Canadian kid whose only dream was to be a hockey player until I was 19 years old, Theoren Fleury was my role model. Theoren Fleury was a smaller player whose ability was not fully recognized until he proved himself on the biggest stage (The NHL). He was skilled, fast, and most importantly, he was fearless. Like Fleury, hockey was the best way for me to glimpse heaven, to glimpse God’s glory. “Salvation and escape” and are not too strong of words to describe this game for young kids in Canada (Playing With Fire, 8). Hockey was the constant, in the midst of whatever we were dealing with off the ice. I can only imagine what it would be like for a young player’s coach to betray him the way Graham James did. As a young boy Theoren Fleury was sexually and emotionally abused. But Fleury would stay quiet because he decided that in order to reach his promised land (The NHL) he would have to be willing to descend into hell itself.
This breach of trust and abuse from his coach would lead him down a trail of drug, alcohol, and sex addiction. With how the media critiques the Catholic church it might seem unbelievable to learn that his childhood priest was a source of comfort and friendship for him, while Graham James the noble hockey coach was the villain. But this is the reality of power, it doesn't matter where it is coming from, it will almost always lead to corruption. In an interview with sports writer Eric Francis, Graham James is reported to have said he wished he was born in Roman times because back then “it was acceptable to have boys as partners” (Playing With Fire, 154).
In his own life, Fleury has not always been a good husband or father. Yet he has asked those he loves for forgiveness and is often a powerful voice against the corruption of his sport and country. While playing for a First Nation’s team toward the end of his career (he is part Cree and Metis) he experienced first-hand Canada’s racism against Native people. In an 2005 interview with the Edmonton Sun Fleury states:
"The one thing that's really bothered me through this whole thing is the prejudice, still, in this country when it comes to Native people. I've seen it first-hand in every building we go into, how these people are treated, and it's absolutely embarrassing to be a Canadian and know that stuff is still going on."
This is coming from a guy who is deeply in love with his country and has helped us win a number of gold medals on the world stage, including the Olympics in 2002. I have never seen anyone more excited to make a team than when Fleury made Team Canada in 2002.
Today, Fleury is sober and grounded in the reality that there is a power greater then himself. He uses the tradition of his ancestors to keep himself centered and in relational awareness of God (The Great Spirit). He uses sage, sweet-grass, and smudging, to “get rid of negative spirits” and buries ashes in the four corners of his yard “every morning for protection” (Playing With Fire, 337). He also uses the ancient method of “sweats” to purge himself of negative thoughts, and is a public speaker for Native kids all over the country. In a time where a more militant secular worldview is challenging people of all religious worldviews, the elders of the First Nations people all over Canada fear that “the heart of the people will disappear because their children don’t speak the language or follow the traditions” (Playing With Fire, 322).
I fear this for Christianity as well. While it is the most popular religion in Canada, it is being transformed by powerful societal undercurrents of corporate division, and individual autonomy. Fleury’s mom was a Jehovah’s Witness, which according to Fleury taught him mixed messages against his Catholic upbringing because the Trinity was taught to be “inspired by Satan” yet here he was “praying to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost every day" he thought he "was in league with the devil” (Playing With Fire, 12). Fleury is moving in the right direction by looking into the tradition of his ancestors, and concerning himself with the public good of his community. He has begun to appreciate what Christian theologian G.K. Chesterton calls the “democracy of the dead.”