When I heard they were making a movie about Theo Fleury and using the title of his best-selling book ("Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire") as their own moniker, I had my suspicions. Fleury was one of the best players and most notorious scrappers in the National Hockey League, but has also been in the spotlight speaking out about the perils of sexual abuse in minor hockey. Between the Canadiana production and the worries that this would be some kind of preachy PSA, I was not looking forward to this potentially earnest doc. What I got instead was a complex warts-and-all biography and a portrait of a man that begged as many questions as it answered. In other words, a great documentary.
Theo himself acts as your guide in this film. His geographical and historical stops help to illustrate a man who has lived his truth, felt pain and embarrassment, and celebrated the highest highs available in the hockey world.
The story begins in his boyhood home in Russell, Manitoba, where his alcoholic father and bystander mother gave shape to his early reality. Short and fast, Fleury has tremendous talent on the ice, and while his father is proud, he seems to have some healthy ego problems of his own -- too drunk to watch the games, but still taking credit for his boy's abilities. Fleury is whisked off to hockey boarding school in Moosejaw, where he's coached and sexually abused by recently sentenced Graham James. Fleury's commentary and anguish over these years serve as context for a bipolar career that saw incredible success and rock-bottom lows.
The doc travels to Calgary, Moosejaw, New York City, Chicago and Phoenix, while introducing family members, coaches and friends. In his famous playoff goal that saw him score in OT against the Edmonton Oilers in game 6 of the 1991 Stanley Cup final, we see the apex of the Fleury legacy. While there are hundreds of points yet to be scored and millions to be made in lucrative contracts, the demons of his past, fuelled by the rocket of fame, eventually break him. In 2004, Fleury thinks about ending it all in the lonesome deserts of Arizona, gun in mouth, finger on the trigger.
Since then there have been comebacks, a book, a stint on "Battle of the Blades," and talk of the Hockey Hall of Fame -- and Fleury remains a divisive figure. He believes that his life is on the right track, but many still wonder, or flat out deny that he has reconciled with himself.
The true test of docs like these is that moment when you wonder if Fleury himself would like the film after a viewing. I'm sure he might have his own set of issues with it, and for that reason, "Theo Fleury: Playing With Fire" has real integrity.
Fri, May 4, 9:30 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Sat, May 5, 1:15 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 6 6:30 p.m. Cumberland 3
Full schedule of Hot Docs screenings Hot Docs Day 8: 'The Ambassador' Hot Docs Day 7: 'The Final Member' Hot Docs Day 6: 'We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists' Hot Docs Day 5: 'The Queen Of Versailles' Hot Docs Day 4: 'Bones Brigade: An Autobiography' Hot Docs Day 3: 'Beauty Is Embarrassing' Hot Docs Day 2: 'Beware Of Mr. Baker' Hot Docs Day 1: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"