PITTSBURGH — Lightning defenseman Haydn Fleury carries the memory of his friend everywhere he goes. He has a tattoo on the inside of his left bicep to honor Kale Williams, with whom he developed a quick friendship when he was playing junior hockey in Red Deer as a 16-year-old.
Williams wasn’t a budding prospect like Fleury. But his father worked for the Red Deer team, and Kale was a constant presence, his smile and personality drawing people in. Though a neuromuscular disorder called Charcot- Marie-Tooth disease prevented Williams from playing, he attended every game.
When Williams died by suicide on Feb. 10, 2013 (his parents have shared their son’s story publicly in order to help others), Fleury didn’t know how to handle the loss. He was just a kid. Before every game since, Fleury has written Williams’ initials on his stick. And he has tried to use his forum to raise mental health awareness, speaking honestly and openly about his own mental health struggles.
“I know (Williams is) still watching,” Fleury, 26, said last week. “I still try and keep in touch with his family as best I can. It’s been almost 10 years now, so it’s been a long time. It’s still trying to keep his memory alive.”
‘Why would that happen?’
During Fleury’s first full junior season with Red Deer, he and Williams instantly hit it off. They hung out every day. Williams was at every game and team function. Fleury was sitting at dinner with his host family in Red Deer after returning from a road trip when he was told of the death of his friend, who was in 12th grade at the time. He was in shock.
“I only knew him for probably six months, but it was a relationship that leaves a mark on you,” Fleury said. “He was always so fun to be around, so full of life. And you’re like, ‘Why would that happen?’ You realize there might have been some stuff going on behind the scenes. Mental health at the time wasn’t really talked about as much as it was now.”
Fleury blossomed as a player in his four seasons in Red Deer, and in 2014 he was selected by the Hurricanes with the seventh overall pick in the draft.
When he was 19, he got a tattoo to honor Williams. It depicts four playing cards, one with a “K” in the upper left corner and another with a “W.” Two others contain the numbers 2 and 10, signifying the date of his death. Two dice, showing a 4 and a 6, represent the number 46, worn by Williams’ favorite Red Deer player, Colin Fraser, who played there in the early 2000s and went on to win three Stanley Cups in the NHL.
“I think now it’s more about educating young kids in high school that high school can be a really hard time for some people,” Fleury said. “So I think it’s being more aware of people’s feelings and realizing that everybody has something going on, whether it’s the most powerful person in the world or just a guy just going about his day. Everybody has a story, and everybody has something going on.”
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Managing the highs and lows
Fleury entered the NHL with the Hurricanes in 2017 with huge expectations, but he struggled with the day-to-day highs and lows. As a young player, he passed the eye test but had a tough time with consistency.
In his fourth season, the pandemic hit. At the time, Fleury and his wife, Jaid, were expecting their first child. Jaid reached out to her husband’s agent to try to find someone to help Haydn talk through his emotions. He started meeting with mental health counselor Jay Harrison, an NHL defenseman for 15 seasons and a teammate during Haydn’s first training camp with Carolina.
“I think he wasn’t handling the lows very well,” Jaid said of her husband. “And when that happens, you kind of get stuck in a little bit of a rut. Even though he was open with me, there’s only so much understanding that I can have and that he probably knows that I can have.
“I see how much it can bother him when he comes home if it’s a tough night, and there’s just so much that anybody can say when you’re not in it. Because at the end of the day, I’m not the one putting the skates on. So, that’s been really good for him.”
Haydn said his first conversation with Harrison took a huge weight off his shoulders. He told his teammates how the discussions helped clear his mind, and some started seeking counseling with Harrison as well.
“It’s honestly like a little brother-big brother relationship,” Haydn said. “I can call him if I’m having problems or stuff’s going on at the rink or just life stuff. He’s really good at explaining things and kind of putting things into perspective. I think ever since I started talking to him, my perspective on life and hockey and stuff like that has changed to where I find that I can push away a bad day.”
Harrison declined comment in order to respect Fleury’s privacy.
Finding a new home
The Fleurys, now parents to a 15-month-old son, Wolfe, entered this year’s offseason looking for a new team and a new home in free agency. Haydn was traded to the Ducks at the end of the abbreviated 2020-21 season and then taken by the Kraken in the expansion draft. He didn’t get much playing time with the Kraken, so if minutes were going to be sporadic, the Fleurys at least wanted to be somewhere he could grow as a player.
When the Lightning called, needing to rebuild the left side of their defense following the July 3 trade of Ryan McDonagh, it was a good fit. Haydn could learn from one of the best left-side defensemen in the game, Victor Hedman. Kraken and former Lightning center Yanni Gourde and his wife, Marie, with whom the Fleurys had become close in Seattle, lauded Tampa Bay’s family atmosphere and life in the Florida sunshine.
“The biggest point that we took away from it was the organization and how they treat their players, how they develop them,” Jaid Fleury said. “And Haydn has even said since coming here how much he’s learned over the past month. He can’t even believe it’s more than he’s learned over extended amount of time anywhere else.”
The Lightning, who signed Haydn to a two-year deal worth an average annual value of $762,500, have a strong reputation for unearthing untapped gems. This could be the right time for Haydn, who has an opportunity to play now with Zach Bogosian injured and Ian Cole suspended (he has since been reinstated) to start the season.
In the Lightning’s 5-2 win over the Blue Jackets on Thursday, Haydn led Tampa Bay defensemen with eight shot attempts in 14:11 of ice time. He also picked up his first assist with his new team on Steven Stamkos’ first-period goal.
“I think everything that he’s been through has definitely shaped him into who he is now,” Jaid said. “And I’m hoping that that all kind of comes to light with hopefully good things to come here.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to the 24–hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.
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