Nine years later, Kraken defenseman Haydn Fleury still struggles for words about the suicide of his teenage friend.
He’d last seen Kale Williams just days before, playing a board game called Crokinole with him the night before Fleury’s Red Deer Rebels junior team embarked on a road trip. Fleury subsequently was dining at a family friend’s house Feb. 10, 2013, when his Rebels coach, Brent Sutter, phoned to tell Fleury that Kale had taken his own life.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how to process it,” Fleury said, grasping for words. “I was just instantly in shock. To be honest, talking about it now, it’s still hard to put into words what I felt at the time other than being in complete shock and thinking it wasn’t real.”
He’d broken down at Williams’ funeral upon seeing a photo of him riding in a blue car as a young boy, realizing he’d never see him again. Guilt soon followed, wondering why he hadn’t seen the signs. For a 16-year-old from a small Saskatchewan town, living away from home in Alberta, it was all a bit overwhelming.
“You’re really confused at first,” he said. “You wonder ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ and all this other stuff. And, ‘What could I have done?’ ”
And that’s why, difficult as it still is to talk about, Fleury doesn’t mind opening up about his friend as part of a broader NHL effort to raise mental-health awareness.
Saturday night’s Kraken game against the Los Angeles Kings at Climate Pledge Arena is part of Hockey Talks Mental Health Awareness, an annual league initiative carried out by various clubs. The Kraken and sponsor Premera will distribute 18,000 team flags at the game, 80% being teal and 20% white to denote how one-in-five Americans struggle with mental-health issues.
Premera is also launching a campaign this month featuring videos of Fleury and Kraken teammates Riley Sheahan, Brandon Tanev and Chris Driedger discussing mental-health issues and how to seek help. Fans are encouraged to share social-media messages of support using the #HockeyTalks hashtag to be shared across Kraken and Premera channels.
Sheahan’s video discussing his mental-health journey will be shown on the dual scoreboards at Climate Pledge Arena during Saturday’s game, after which fans with white Kraken flags will be asked to wave them.
As a minor-leaguer in the Detroit Red Wings system a decade ago, Sheahan was arrested for drunken driving in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Soon after he fell into a depression that risked derailing his career until he sought help.
He now hosts a “Speak Your Mind” mental-health podcast and says reaching out for assistance is crucial today during the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that a constant barrage of social media and advertising algorithms makes everybody’s existence more difficult.
“I think sometimes we just pick up so many habits, and it’s hard to think for yourself and think normally,” Sheahan said. “We’re always comparing ourselves to other people on Instagram or whatever it is.
“I just think there’s way more stresses and way more competition in the world right now. In terms of how much money you make and the way you look and all of these materialistic things. I just think those are things that can bog people down.”
Fleury still texts his late friend’s parents every anniversary of his death.
He sports a tattoo on his left arm made three years after Williams’ death. It features four playing cards, two of them sporting his late friend’s “K” and “W” initials along with a two of hearts and 10 of spades for the day he died.
Two dice beneath the cards display a “4” and a “6,” representing Williams’ favorite uniform No. 46 worn by Colin Fraser, his favorite Red Deer player. Fleury recently sent Williams’ parents a Kraken jersey with the No. 46 and their son’s name on it as well.
Williams wasn’t a hockey player and had a neuromuscular disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease that affected his nerves and limbs.
His stepfather was a longtime Rebels employee, and Williams, the same age as Fleury, would hang around the team and attend parties with them.
“He was a big dancer,” Fleury said. “I couldn’t dance, but he’d always be dancing or doing something.”
Fleury had been introduced to Williams through a mutual friend, and they and two others formed a tight-knit circle.
Blackjack was one of the many games Fleury, Williams and three Rebels teammates in their group used to play, hence the card-themed tattoo.
“We hung out basically almost every single day,” Fleury said. “We played board games. Everything you could think of we did.”
Which is why he and others from their group were so devastated. The team got them counseling, but Fleury said it was their coach, Sutter — a former player from a hockey-playing family that spawned six NHL siblings — who truly made a difference.
“I think he realized how drastic of a situation we were going through, so he was really good,” Fleury said. “He helped me and my three teammates through the whole process of everything.”
That’s why Fleury, like Sheahan, feels it’s important to use his hockey platform to spread awareness of the benefits of seeking help. In subsequent years, Fleury came to realize his friend was likely fighting his own internal mental-health struggle that eventually prevailed.
“I think I’m very self-aware now of how I’m feeling or how my loved ones are feeling,” Fleury said. “That’s kind of been the most important thing. That I can be there if somebody is ever in a situation like that or needs somebody to talk to.”