Playing with Fire: Theo Fleury’s story, Shaun Smyth’s triumph


The Centaur has launched its 49th season, not playing with fire, but rather, playing it safe. And it’s not a reproach. What I mean by that, is that former NHL player Theo Fleury’s story is so captivating and multi-faceted, Shaun Smyth’s performance is so real and raw, and the hockey-infused story is such a Canadian one that the Centaur can’t help but have a crowd-pleaser on its hands. The standing ovations and the four bows on Opening Night only served to confirm that my impressions are accurate.

Playing with Fire is based on Theo Fleury’s best-selling book by the same name. Co-written with Kirstie McLellan Day, it tells the story of Theoren “Theo” Fleury, who at 5’6″ made a name for himself in a game played by much bigger athletes. Once considered unlikely to play in the NHL due to his small size, Fleury scored over 1,000 points in his career and became known for his aggressive playing style. A fast-rising star in junior hockey, he later became part of the Calgary Flames, a team that would win the Stanley Cup in 1989. He was also a key member of the gold medal–winning Canadian men’s hockey team at the 2002 Olympics.

He later signed with the Colorado Avalanche, the New York Rangers, and the Chicago Blackhawks, raking in millions of dollars as a player. But as fascinating as his NHL hockey career was, and despite his against-all-odds success as a small guy in a sport that favours brute strength, muscle, and size, it’s what happened behind the bench that makes his story so compelling.

Dysfunction, abuse, and drugs

Fleury grew up extremely poor and was raised in a dysfunctional home. While a junior hockey player, he was sexually abused by his coach Graham James. Sheldon Kennedy was also a victim of that same coach. As a result, during his career he battled drug and alcohol addiction, and often had suicidal thoughts. Fleury left the NHL in 2013 and focused on self-care, speaking out against sexual abuse as a public speaker and wrote his book with McLellan Day. She later adapted the autobiography into a one-man play, entitled Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story, which was produced in Calgary and made its world premiere in 2012.

It’s this play that the Centaur decided to launch its new season with. Directed by Ron Jenkins, it continues to rely on Shaun Smyth’s physicality and ease at embodying someone that, by now, must feel like a genuine part of him. The entire play takes place on an ice-hockey rink. I was told that the artificial polymer ice is quite difficult to skate on, so it’s certainly to Smyth’s credit that he makes it look so effortless. It’s no small feat that he skates around for two hours while telling a story that as emotionally exhausting as it must be physically tiring.

Smyth’s performance is so authentic and effortless (no doubt thanks to years of playing and honing the character) that I had to see him standing next to Fleury during the after-party (the former NHL player was in attendance on Opening Night) to be reminded that they weren’t the same person. Playing with Fire may indeed be a one-man show, with Shaun Smyth all alone on that stage for 1 hr and 40 minutes, but it’s really a true two-hander. Theo Fleury has quite the story to share, but it relies on Shaun Smyth being able to tell it convincingly. He does so exceedingly well.

While the play is certainly heavy on hockey highlights and NHL trivia, it’s never weighed down by it. The story is compelling enough, and the narration quick and light enough, that it’s capable of retaining even a non-hockey fan’s interest. The Centaur’s production and its set and lighting teams rely on some interesting visual cues to keep the hockey imagery alive and the pace quick.

At the end of the day, Playing with Fire is a story of redemption and hope. A story about how, despite your bad odds and your demons, you can overcome what happens to you and live to tell the tale and help others.

The Globe & Mail wrote that “It’s hard to believe Fleury survived his own life,” but he did. He survived and he’s here — through his story — to remind many others that they can, too.

Playing with Fire: The Theo Fleury Story runs at the Centaur Theatre until October 29. For tickets and/or information, you can go here.