Theo Fleury sees his country music career as anything but a gimmick.
The former Calgary Flames star turned singer/songwriter can be heard crooning his latest tune on Madden NFL 18. Fleury wrote the song, titled "Longshot," specifically for the video game's newest feature, a story mode by the same name that lets users follow the journey of a player who is trying to overcome multiple challenges to make the NFL.
The song, co-written by Phil Deschambault, features deep, hard-edged vocals that Fleury, a lifelong country music fan, says are inspired by legends such as Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. It was also inspired by Fleury's own path; the scrappy, 5-foot-6 winger from Oxbow, Saskatchewan, defied skeptics all the way to the NHL, where he became a seven-time All-Star.
Fleury hopes this song -- and an eventual second album -- can legitimize him as more than just a former athlete trying to figure out his post-playing life. The 49-year-old also hopes his music gives voice to fellow victims of abuse.
"I want to feel some vulnerability from the person I'm listening to. I want to know something about them," said Fleury, who chronicled the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his junior hockey coach Graham James, and the alcoholism and drugs that contributed to the end of his hockey career, in his 2009 autobiography "Playing With Fire." "I've got lots of material. It's funny, because most people come to our shows out of pure curiosity. The other people [there] are people who have experienced trauma in their lives. I know that both groups leave with a lot of hope and inspiration and they're pleasantly surprised at the kind of stuff that we put out there."
Fleury -- who hoisted the Cup with the Flames in 1989, won a gold medal for Canada in 2002 and amassed 455 goals, 633 assists and 1,840 penalty minutes during his career -- still keeps an eye on hockey. He is based in Calgary and has a lot of opinions about the game, where it has been and where it is going. ESPN.com spoke with Fleury about how his collaboration with EA Sports came to fruition, how he found a new purpose in life through music, and why the current NHL game is overcoached.
ESPN.com: How did you get in touch with EA Sports?
Fleury: It's crazy. I was at Mario Lemieux's fantasy camp probably five years ago and I was sitting besides this guy from St. Louis named Michael Young. He grew up in Calgary, of all places, while I was in my heyday playing for the Flames. I'm sitting beside him in the dressing room and he's pumping my tires, saying I'm one of his favorites and such. So I asked, 'What do you do for a living?' He said, 'I build and make the Madden football game.' And I'm like, 'Wow, that's pretty cool.'
So two years later I get a direct message from him on Twitter saying, 'Hey, I've been listening to some of your music and I really like it. We have this project we're doing with Madden football. Would you write a song for us?' I'm like, 'Uh ... yeah.'
So he sent all the parameters of what he wanted in the song and what they were trying to accomplish and that's how [Deschambault and I] came up with 'Longshot.'
ESPN.com: That must have been flattering.
Fleury: They could have asked anybody. They could have gotten some really, really famous songwriter to write it, but they asked me. I was like, 'Yeah, I'll give it a try.' So we put the demo together -- it probably took us a day-and-a-half to write the song -- and we sent it to Mike. He responded immediately and was like, 'Holy cow. I knew it was going to be good, but I didn't realize it was going to be that good.'
ESPN.com: Was this the first musical door your country album opened?
Fleury: The music industry is so crazy, right? It is a hard industry to break into, and then you have a guy like [track star] Carl Lewis who wrecked it for all of us [athletes] when he tried to sing the anthem at the Bulls game [laughs]. So I refuse to sing the national anthem at any event at all because it's a career-ender.
We put the first album out and everybody was just like, 'Whatever, he's doing an album.' So right now we're in the process of writing the second album so people know that this is something I really have a passion for and want to do and I'm still evolving as an artist and as a writer and performer.
ESPN.com: When you played, you struggled with [drug and alcohol] addiction and dealt with mental health issues. It seems like today there's a better overall understanding publicly about these problems. Do you think your career would have turned out differently if you had more help?
Fleury: I think I probably would have been more open about my own struggles and whatnot because it's very ... hockey was old-school, right?
'Never let them see you crack. Never show any vulnerability. Just suck it up and do your job.'
ESPN.com: Do you think getting things off your chest would have helped?
Fleury: I don't think so. When people are ready, they're ready, you know what I mean? I don't know if having different programs or different protocols in place changes it a whole lot. I think for the public, the support, recovery and mental wellness and mindfulness and all this stuff we talk about now -- I think it's great that we have those big companies like the NHL, the NBA, the NFL, soccer, where they're starting to support those initiatives, and by doing that, it is allowing more people who are employees of them, so players ... it becomes easier for them to talk about their struggles without shame attached to it or fans jumping all over the guy and saying, 'Look at all the money he makes. He shouldn't have any problems.'
Well no, that's not what it's about.
ESPN.com: When you had your issues while you were playing, do you think people jumped on you unfairly because of the big contract you signed with the New York Rangers in 1999?
Fleury: Yeah, but people at the time didn't understand trauma, didn't understand mental health, didn't understand addictions. They didn't have any knowledge, so it was just their perception of what was going on in my life that caused them to say whatever.
ESPN.com: You recently said you think the current game is overcoached. What do you mean by that?
Fleury: Now you have social media, you have 300 cameras in each building, and all of these cameras are hooked up to analytics. And you have all these 'propeller heads' sitting in these rooms, analyzing everything and taking stats. So the [coaches] are playing Xbox with these guys. There's no creativity, there's no individuality. It's just boring.
If a coach had brought an iPad on the bench [when I was playing] and showed me something in the middle of the game, I would have smashed it into a million pieces.
We were allowed to be creative. We were allowed to make mistakes. Now, because the coaches make as much as the players, there is no more of that. So if you try to be an individual and you step outside the coach's comfort zone, guess what? You're sitting on the end of the bench.
ESPN.com: How can this be rectified?
Fleury: I don't know, I'm not sure.
ESPN.com: Does it just take one team having more success with a creative group?
Fleury: If you look at the NHL over the years and how it has sort of trended, starting with the New York [Islanders] dynasty and the [Edmonton] Oilers dynasty and then the Pittsburgh Penguins in the '90s. And then the New Jersey Devils came along, and expansion came along and diluted the talent base. And then we knew everybody's salaries and it sort of just evolved [from there].
ESPN.com: You mentioned expansion and what happened in the '90s with regard to the quality of play. Are you worried that bringing in a new expansion team in Vegas could dilute the talent base further?
Fleury: There's enough talent out there [now]. There are lots of great players. Switzerland is producing some great hockey players. It never did in the past, and a lot of countries that weren't playing hockey at a high level are starting to produce NHL hockey players. Anze Kopitar [from Slovenia] is a perfect example.
ESPN.com: You were part of the 'Battle of Alberta' in the '80s between the Flames and Edmonton Oilers. What do you think about both Calgary and Edmonton rekindling this? It has been a while since they were both good at the same time.
Fleury: They're on the cusp of something really great, and for hockey on this side of the hemisphere it's great. It's great for the NHL. If Calgary and Edmonton have great teams that are competitive and playing in the playoffs, it's big. It's huge.
ESPN.com: Can it be like the 'Battle of Alberta' when you played?
Fleury: It's not going to be the same as it was when we were playing, because there's no hatred anymore. You have to have that bad blood. Most of these guys know each other. Most of these guys have each other's phone numbers. They're texting each other before the game. If we saw somebody in the summer who played for the Oilers, we weren't talking to them. If we were at a celebrity golf tournament with them, we weren't talking with them. We weren't working out together in the summertime.