Of ice and fire: Theo Fleury helps pair of Minnesota girls stay on the ice
Former NHL star Theo Fleury is helping to keep a pair of young Minnesota girls on the ice.
By PHIL ERVINFS North
A cursory, 10-minute YouTube perusal of Theo Fleury highlights strikes an envious chord with the younger viewer, conjuring wishes he'd been born a decade earlier to witness in person this NHL star's peak days.
Boy, could that little guy fly. His RPM levels during relentless trips up and down the ice were matched only by his crazed, kneeling post-goal reactions, his arms flailing in wild triumph.
Grace and grit, personified in a 5-foot-6 fireball that was just as wont to glide past larger, opposing defensemen as he was to agitate them into fisticuffs or take a retaliation penalty, no matter what it cost his team.
But even the millennial demographic that caught the tail-end of Fleury's playing days knows that, with as much comfort, control and charisma as he displayed with a pair of skates laced firmly around his feet, he spent the entirety of his professional pucks tenure running.
Running from a troubled childhood in the same household as an alcoholic father and a bedridden mother overrun with depression. Running from the recollections, guilt and shame wrought by a manipulative, pedophile juniors coach.
Paradoxically, the very game that opened the door to a caliginous alley of self-destruction also proved, in the retired Hall of Fame hopeful's own words, his "salvation."
Even while squandering the $50 million he made in the NHL on heinously excessive alcohol consumption, frequent use of recreational drugs and prostitution -- all in an emotional and psychological response to sexual abuse by Western Hockey League head man Graham James, Fleury wrote in his best-selling 2009 autobiography -- firmly knotting those laces and feeling that piece of wood in his gloved hands served as a reminder.
Beauty and good still exist.
"Hockey is my everything," said Fleury, who at the depth of his turmoil stuck a pistol in his mouth before deciding not to pull the trigger in 2004. "It was my salvation. It was my happy place. It was a place where I never had to think about anything, you know?
"I always looked at the ice and saw it as a blank sheet of paper, and I can write a different story every single night."
Add another to the library.
Michelle Trelfa wasn't asking for any help Tuesday, July 30, when she stepped into a youth softball dugout in Sauk Rapids, Minn.
The mother of six simply wished to thank coach Brent Pakkala for asking her 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, to try on the diamond for size this summer. Hannah and Pakkala's daughter, Callie, grew to be best friends playing hockey together and only strengthened that friendship via softball.
On the ice, Hannah has taken a liking to keeping pucks out of the net; her Sauk Rapids Youth Hockey Association coaches put her at both goaltender and defense last winter. Her 9-year-old sister, Hope, is somewhat of an offensive phenom -- playing in a mites division comprised mainly of boys last season, it wasn't uncommon for her to score five or six goals a game.
Hannah Trelfa and her sisters needed some sort of positive outlet this summer. They've spent the past few months watching their parents work out the legal details of a divorce 17 years after they married.
So it was with sincere appreciation that Michelle Trelfa told Pakkala "thank you" following the team's final softball game, noting that the family's current financial situation would prevent Hannah from playing the always-costly sport of hockey this fall.
Pakkala's heart sank.
"That was hard to hear," said Pakkala, a fifth-grade teacher at Pleasant View Elementary School in Sauk Rapids. "Hannah is one of the sweetest, nicest girls I've ever been around. She always has the biggest smile in the entire rink."
But Hannah also has five sisters, two of whom play hockey in addition to her. Their grandfather offered to finance the participation of one, and the family decided that privilege would go to the oldest of the three.
If they were to ever strap on their padding again, Hannah and Hope would have to wait at least a year.
"They were already down because of the separation," Michelle Trelfa said. "On top of that, they weren't going to be able to play hockey and be back with some of their closest friends.
"We'd kind of said, 'It's OK' and accepted it."
The name "Pakkala" just looks like it should be on the back of a hockey jersey.
Although his sizable sports memorabilia collection includes several of them, he never played the game while growing up in Seattle. He did, however, attend plenty of WHL contests featuring the Seattle Breakers and later the Thunderbirds, morphing into a devoted fan of amateur pucks.
He exercises that passion regularly, serving as St. Cloud State's official scorer for both men's and women's hockey. Both of his children engage in the sport as well.
The night of July 30, Pakkala couldn't sleep.
Michelle Trelfa's words and Hannah's glowing grin turned over in his mind as persistently as he turned over in bed. After a while, he shifted to the living room and plugged in a movie, trying to fall asleep but consumed by attempts to help his daughter's best friend stick with the sport she loves.
"It wouldn't stop bugging me," Pakkala said. "I just kept thinking, 'What can I do to help here?'"
The hockey association's signup deadline was the following day. The organization has some scholarship money available for players that need it, but not nearly enough to cover the entire cost.
Between signup fees, USA Hockey memberships and ice time, it would require about $435 for Hannah to play, $870 for both her and Hope.
Pakkala's wife is a teacher, too, and a good chunk of their paycheck-to-paycheck finances are tied up in hockey expenses for Callie and her brother.
By the time Pakkala had clipped through a few episodes of "Impractical Jokers," it was nearly midnight. He was no closer to sleep, nor a solution.
Then, he decided to share the story with his favorite hockey player, a guy he'd seen dominate during road trips through Seattle with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
A fellow by the name of Theoren Fleury.
"I was grasping at straws," Pakkala said. "I just sent out one tweet."
Technically, a direct message -- Fleury had been following Pakkala for some time, noting him as a loyal fan. Pakkala later revealed his plea to the masses:
"I didn't think I'd get a response," Pakkala said.
The 1987-88 WHL scoring co-champion then urged Pakkala to tweet more details publicly so Fleury could retweet them to his 75,000-plus followers. Pakkala did, even offering one of his game-used Fleury sticks in exchange for funds.
Finally, some headway. Finally, Pakkala could rest.
He didn't doze off for good until close to 4 a.m. By then, he'd received at least 16 replies to his appeal.
Fleury's call for aid had been answered.
Throughout the rest of that early morning and the next day, Pakkala went into what he calls "middle man mode," the frame of mind he uses when raising money for underprivileged students at his school. He fielded all kinds of social media correspondence -- some offering encouragement, others prayers, others dollars.
First, a man from British Columbia offered to donate $150 in exchange for the stick (it contained Fleury's autograph). A woman who'd moved from Brainerd, Minn., to New York pledged 100 then friends $250 shortly after, followed by an old friend who offered up $500.
Pakkala contacted the hockey association, which quickly set up a fund to collect the money. Fleury had him post the story to
his Facebook page the following Friday. By the time he could procure additional donations, another stranger -- this one a woman from Colorado -- tweeted at him and said she'd just been on the phone with the association.
She had paid both Hannah and Hope's expense, in full.
"I was speechless," Pakkala said. "We'd needed 870. We were now at 1,800."
So was Mike Trelfa, the girls' father.
"It's humbling," he said. "It was hard to feel like I wasn't able to provide for my kids myself and offer them this opportunity they've had the last couple years, so to have people around the country and parts of Canada offering to help my kids out, it's been heartwarming and humbling."
Michelle Trelfa broke down in tears when the news was relayed to her. Hannah and Hope were camping with their grandfather on the north shore of Lake Superior at the time. "I was ecstatic," Trelfa said. "I couldn't wait to tell the girls."
They were tired, sweaty and grimy -- not unlike Hannah's appearance following her final softball game of the season -- when they returned home to find out they'd be rejoining their closest friends on the ice in September.
Hannah responded with a howling chorus of "oh my gosh" repeated several times over.
"When I found out," said Hope, the younger of the two, "I couldn't wipe the smile off my face."
At some point in Calgary, Alberta, Fleury sat back and beamed, too.
"I used to be one of those kids," he said.
If not for similar generosity, Fleury would've never hopped in the vehicle for both his downfall and re-ascension.
Friends and neighbors from his hometown of Russell, Manitoba, (he was born in Oxbow, Saskatchewan) were the primary financiers for Fleury and his two brothers' hockey expenses. The community raised the money necessary to send him to the Andy Murray Hockey School in Brandon, Manitoba, as well.
It was there that Fleury met Graham James, his future Warriors coach who was eventually convicted of molesting Fleury, his cousin and teammate Todd Holt and fellow former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy, among other players. The
stories Fleury tells in his book "Playing with Fire" are horrific, including tales of James forcing him to stay the night at his home.
All told, he alleges James sexually abused him 150 times over a two-year period.
During a 15-year career that included a 1989 Stanley Cup, 2002 Olympic gold medal and seven All-Star Game appearances -- mostly with the
Calgary Flames -- Fleury relied upon alcohol, drugs and sex, to forget about the immense trauma he'd endured as a teenager. Not until he unearthed his scathing secrets was he liberated from that lifestyle, he says now.
"When you have shame attached to sexual abuse, a lot of people go their whole life and never, ever get rid of that shame or tell that secret they've been carrying around," Fleury said. "I'm not ashamed anymore. I don't have any guilt, and I don't have any regrets. It's really what I needed to do for myself to get some freedom and some peace and some happiness in my life."
Fleury says he hasn't consumed a drop of alcohol or used any type of illicit drug for the past eight years, thanks in large part to "every type of therapy known to mankind" and unwavering support from his second wife, Jennifer. He's made a career as a motivational speaker, sharing his story at events around North America, and finds time to spend with his four children.
It's with a soft-hearted countenance that he dipped his hand into Sauk Rapids youth hockey two weeks ago. The bitter rage that nearly destroyed him is long gone.
"I have another relapse in me, but I certainly don't have another recovery in me," Fleury said. "I love my life. I don't' miss drinking, and I don't miss doing drugs. I have an amazing family and four beautiful kids. I see no point in it anymore, you know? I'm not in pain anymore where I used to self-medicate."
And because of Fleury's desire to give back, he and Pakkala don't plan on stopping at one year of hockey for Hope and Hannah.
"He told me, 'I want to make this big, and I want to make it beyond this year,'" Pakkala said.
It's already been decided the surplus funds will stay with the Sauk Rapids Youth Hockey Association and go toward future seasons for the Trelfa family (they have one younger daughter, a 5-year-old, who also wants to take up the sport). In addition, Fleury plans to speak in St. Cloud free of charge this coming November, part of a larger event honoring the donors and, he and Pakkala hope, kickstarting a foundation that allows area children to play hockey no matter their families' fiscal situation.
Pakkala wishes to involve the St. Cloud State hockey programs, too.
It's all a vague, conceptual musing at this point. The reasons for hockey's high cost are manifold -- few rinks that put ice time at a premium, rising equipment prices, demanding travel schedules and expectations, to name a few.
"We're looking for a way to redistribute funds in a very small way, get people that are willing to throw in to help those kids that can't afford it," Pakkala said. "Maybe if we have an answer to it that's small, we can give it some wheels and continue on and help more and more kids."
Both Michelle and Mike Trelfa have pledged their support, too, even in the midst of their personal family struggles.
Those still wear on their children, who have bounced back and forth between their mother and father while the two sort out custody and other legal issues.
But there's a little more hope around the Trelfa households lately, hope inspired initially by one retweet.
"They're on Cloud 9," Mike Trelfa said. "They're all smiles.
"They were just gloomy, but now their eyes light up when they talk about it."
Someday, Hope and Hannah will grow up and understand the full magnitude of receiving a helping hand from one of sport's most troubled yet triumphant figures. Someday, they'll read Theo Fleury's book and realize how the game provided him light during a remarkably dark time.
It's a concept with which they're already very familiar.
"I don't know what I'd do without hockey," Hannah Trelfa said.