From serious, hard-hitting personal discussions to an uplifting, inspirational meet and greet with youth, former NHL stars Jordin Tootoo and Theoren Fleury left their mark in the lakecity this past week.
Tootoo and Fleury held a presentation Thursday evening in front of a packed house at the Gibraltar Room where they shared individual stories of personal and professional challenges, hardships and subsequent recoveries. The event was hosted by Williams Lake’s Three Corners Health Services Society, which serves the communities of Xat’sull (Soda Creek), Stswecem’c Xgat’tem (Canoe Creek) and T’exelc (Sugar Cane).
Friday, Tootoo made a special stop in at Total Ice Training Centre to visit, sign autographs and speak to Indigenous youth — much to the guests’ delight.
The night prior, however, the duo spoke candidly to First Nations community members.
Started off by the story of Williams Lake Indian Band Councillor Lennard Supernault and the struggles he’s faced in his life, Tootoo and Fleury took turns engaging with the audience.
Fleury, in fact, has a special connection to Williams Lake as his dad, Wally, suited up for the Williams Lake Stampeders in 1970. Fleury lived in Williams Lake at the time as a young boy, he told the Tribune, and has an aunt who currently lives in 150 Mile House.
“My little brother was even born in Williams Lake,” he said.
“My dad, though, what he was famous for here was he got an all-star fastball team together. He was manager and catcher and they won all over the place.”
Fleury has spoken in 400 First Nations communities across Canada, written two books ranging in topics of sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a former junior hockey coach, later substance abuse issues, his recovery and his current message.
“I want to help as many people get to where they’re going to go,” Fleury said, who is of Métis descent.
“Every day I work in the field of trauma, mental health and addiction. The key to healing is community, community, community, community. Our grandmothers, grandfathers and the Creator left behind a whole bunch of tools they knew we were going to need to heal like the smudge, drum, sweat lodge, dancing, singing and the sun dance. The day I asked for help is the day I saved my life.”
Fleury said he worked just as hard on his recovery as he did in the NHL, which included a career predominantly with the Calgary Flames that culminated with a Stanley Cup victory in 1989.
Tootoo, who is of Inuit and Ukrainian descent, was the first Inuk player and first player to grow up in Nunavut to play in the NHL. He said it was his first visit to Williams Lake and commented on how beautiful he thought the area was.
His brother, Terence Tootoo, died by suicide in 2002 at the age of 22 in Brandon, Man. after a night of partying between the siblings. Tootoo said he’s endured verbal, physical and substance abuse in his life which, combined with his brother’s death, led him down a dark path during his NHL career.
“My life is great now but at one point I didn’t want to live,” Tootoo said. “I had a ton of money, I was playing in the NHL, but I was living in fear.”
His life changed when Nashville Predators general manager David Poile publicly supported Tootoo in entering a substance abuse rehab program.
“That program brought me back to the land where money doesn’t matter,” he said. “My recovery began and is on the land. A place of hope and healing. While I never won a championship in the NHL I believe my daughters are the Stanley Cup. The cycle has stopped with me and it’s something I take great pride in.”
Tootoo said he speaks in roughly five different communities each month, and said he particularly enjoyed interacting with the youth Friday at Total Ice.
“I do this for the kids. They’re the ones who are going to be our leaders in the future and I’m hoping my story will give them a little bit of hope. Williams Lake was awesome. We had a great turnout [at the Gibraltar Room] and for the people that came out it takes a lot of courage. A lot of us come from isolated communities and opportunities are few and far between.”
Asked about current, local NHL star and idol to many youth in the area, Carey Price, Tootoo said the two are good friends.
“What he’s doing in the Indigenous communities is great, and I think it’s part of our job to give back to show our kids it doesn’t matter where you come from the sky’s the limit. When you work hard and put the work in every day it’s a process, but Carey and I hang out quite a bit in the summer time and talk about how we can relay the messages to our communities.”
Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Willie Sellars emceed the evening the previous night at the Gibraltar Room and said Tootoo’s and Fluery’s stories and the evening as a whole was inspirational.
“It changed my life,” Sellars said of the event. “And I’m sure it did for many in the room.”
Lynn Dunford, the mental health and addictions program manager at Three Corners Health, also said she was thrilled with how well received the event was.
“The feedback has been awesome,” she said. “The chiefs thought it was great, and this will help perpetuate that healing we need, and that’s what it was supposed to be all about.”