On Theo Fleury’s drug- and alcohol-addled memories, and the Bob Probert she knew

In conversation with author Kirstie McLellan Day
Friday, November 04, 2011 - Calgary, Alberta - Calgary based author Kirstie McLellan Day is photographed in her home on Friday, November 04, 2011. Photo by Chris Bolin for Macleans Magazine
Kirstie McLellan Day
Photo by Chris Bolin for Macleans Magazine

Her name comes second on the book covers, but there’s little question who leads Canada’s hockey writers. Since 2009, Kirstie McLellan Day has piloted the “autobiographies” of Theo Fleury, the late Bob Probert, and now Hockey Night in Canada’s Ron MacLean, to the heights of bestseller lists. She is our unlikely Ice Queen.

Q: You’re now the country’s most successful hockey writer, but as a mother of five with a background in entertainment TV, you don’t exactly fit the profile. Is that part of the secret to your success?

A: I do write about players and those around the game, but they are people stories too. And I sure hope they appeal to a broader audience.

Q: Do you have a personal connection to the game? Are you a fan?

A: I love hockey. I’m crazy for it. I have four boys and one girl, and my oldest guy was a goalie. His little sister, Lundy, used to watch, and wanted to play net too. So I said, you bet, the equipment is in the garage. And she ended up playing NCAA, Division 1 hockey at Union College in New York state, and was nominated for the Patty Kazmaier award as the top female player in the country. Just going to all her games, I became a hockey mom, and then I became a big Calgary Flames fan.

Q: Your husband Larry hosts a TV show about the Flames, right?

A: Yes, Flames This Week on Sportsnet West. He’s an insane hockey fan, and knows everything there is to know about it. I think he’s pretty surprised that I’m a hockey writer.

Q: In doing these three books, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the NHL?

A: That these players might be superstars, but they have the same worries and insecurities about their jobs as the rest of us. You’d think their life would be Easy Street, but it really isn’t. Players’ careers peak in their 20s, then they end in their 30s. And they don’t have the wisdom at that age to handle retirement like someone is their 60s does.

Q: You cut your teeth interviewing Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford on movie publicity junkets. Are they easier or harder to talk to than hockey players?

A: With Hollywood stars you’re in and out so quickly. Some of them you get to know a little bit when you do it for a long enough period of time. But with the books, I liken it to that show Criminal Minds, about FBI profilers. Basically, I have to get inside the head of the person I’m writing about. It gets to the point where no matter what I’m doing I start to think like them. And I put their voices right in my head. For instance, when I was writing Theo’s book, I’d be at a restaurant and thinking, “What the f–k do I want for dinner? I think I’ll have the f–king burger.”

Q: Your books do nail the voices. Is that an onerous process?

A: As the writer, if you hear me, Kirstie, in the work, I believe I failed. Because the book’s not about me. The opinions and thoughts are not mine. So, you really have to put your ego aside. And it’s a different process for each book. In Theo Fleury’s case, he had only been sober for a year, and drugs and alcohol had kind of robbed him of his memory. So he opened the door for me to talk to his best friends and brother. But that book took 2½ years because the research was so intense. His friends helped me rebuild his life, and then I would take their stories back to him and that would tweak his memory. And in Theo’s case it was even more difficult than Bob Probert’s, because no one in the NHL would speak to me. Not one player.

Q: That’s surprising. Why do you think everyone shut the door on talking about Theo?

A: I think Theo had a lot of problems when he left the NHL, and with the teams. And I think they were just not willing to have any further involvement with him. You know he walked away from the Blackhawks without even phoning. I don’t think there were good feelings there. Whereas with Bob Probert, everybody just loved him. Anyone who Bob had touched wanted to talk and tell stories about him.

Q: You and your husband run a very successful TV production company. What made you want to jump from TV to books?

A: Our company, Pyramid Productions, is the Canadian leader in documentaries. And we did about 27 of those A&E Biographies. One that I wrote was about the crime writer Elmore Leonard. And I was so inspired, I thought I would just love to write a book. It just seemed so rewarding.

Q: Your first book was a true crime story, about a woman whose husband killed their two children. Then you collaborated on the tell-all bio of a member of pro wrestling’s Hart family, then a book on the cable magnate, J. R. Shaw. How do you chose your projects?

A: With No Remorse, I knew Liba, the victim, and I convinced her to tell her story. It ended up being a real healing process, finally being able to share what she’d been through. And people who worked for J. R. Shaw had read No Remorse, and recommended me to him. Diana Hart, I also knew personally, and she asked me to write her story.

Q: The family was pretty upset with that book.

A: After it came out, her brother Bret Hart—we worked out at the same gym—he came up to me, and started yelling and half-chasing me around. He’s a huge guy. It was scary.

Q: How did the Fleury book come about?

A: Theo was at a Flames golf tournament and was talking to my husband and he mentioned that I was a writer. Theo said he was ready to tell his story, so we met up and hit it off.

Q: That book dealt extensively with the sexual abuse he suffered as a teen from his coach Graham James. Were you prepared for what he confided in you?

A: I think everyone had suspected what had happened to Theo, but no one had confirmed it. I knew immediately upon meeting him that he was a courageous guy. He was really upfront. So, I said to him, “If we’re going to do this, everything has to be out there on the table.” And he said, “Yes, I’m ready.” We did two interview sessions, talking about his past, building some trust. Then in the third session, I asked him whether Graham James had sexually abused him, and he said yes. Then I asked him to tell me about it, and he did.

Q: That’s a pretty matter-of-fact way for someone to divulge a secret they’ve been holding on to for years.

A: Theo’s a hard-working guy and he’s very committed. Once he made the decision to do it, that was it.

Q: Both the Fleury story and your subsequent book on Bob Probert devote a lot of time to chronicling their respective battles with drugs and alcohol. But Theo seemed more repentant than Probert. Do you think they were different types of addicts?

A: I don’t know. But I do think they both came to grips with the fact that they were loved, and that they were responsible for other people—they both had kids. I think in the end they both stepped up. By the end of his life, the Bob Probert I knew was loving and devoted to his family.

Q: Still, after those books it must have been a nice change to lighten up a bit with Ron MacLean. Why did you want to help tell his story?

A: Ron and my husband Larry had worked together at CFCA TV in Calgary in the early 1980s. And we got to know Ron and his wife. And I watched his career become this amazing success story, and wasn’t surprised. But I always thought, everyone knows who Ron is from Hockey Night in Canada and Coach’s Corner, but do we really know Ron? And that was the story I just had a need to tell, or to get him to tell. Because Ron really is a writer, and he was instrumental in telling his own story. It was very much a collaboration.

Q: And lately you’ve been busy adapting the Theo Fleury book for the stage?

A: Yes. Being in TV all these years, I see things in terms of a movie. That’s how I write. So I was determined after finishing Playing With Fire to bring it to another dimension. Alberta Theatre Projects has taken it on. And it’s been really interesting watching it come to life. Here are words that I wrote that the actor and director are giving a whole new meaning to. Things that I didn’t even imagine.

Q: I understand that you are big on multi-tasking. Is it true that you ride an exercise bicycle while typing on the computer?

A: Yes, I do. It makes me sound so crazy, but it’s true. I have a little table set up, and I ride the bike, or sometimes I even do the treadmill. I’ve gotten to the point now where with each book I wear out a keyboard. Or I get up in the middle of the night and work. I write whenever humanly possible. I don’t believe in writer’s block, I think that’s ridiculous. It’s a self-indulgent concept.

Q: You’re also working on a detective novel about an ex-NHLer turned cop?

A: I was partway through the novel, but I’ve decided to make it a TV detective series first. All these NHLers I’ve met over the past five years have such amazing stories. There’s so much about them that I think people would find utterly fascinating. And when I used to host a true crime show, I got to know John Cantafio, the former head of major crimes for the RCMP in Calgary. And he inspired me with his stories of ex-players turned cops. So I thought if I bring what I know about the NHL and create a character, and combine that with his RCMP stories, I think that would make a damn fine show.

Q: Are there more hockey figures out there who you’d like to write about?

A: There are. I would really like to write Wayne Gretzky’s story. I’d love to get inside his head and find his voice. He hasn’t said yes yet. But I’m hoping.