Nine years later, Kraken defenseman Haydn Fleury is still wrestling with words about his teenage friend’s suicide.
He’d last seen Kale Williams a few days earlier, playing a board game called Crokinole with him the night before Fleury’s Red Deer Rebels junior team embarked on a road trip. Fleury was then dining at a family friend’s house on February 10, 2013, when his Rebel coach, Brent Sutter, called to tell Fleury that Kale had committed suicide.
“Honestly, I didn’t know how to handle it,” Fleury said, reaching for words. “I was just in shock right away. To be honest, when I talk about it now, it’s still hard to put into words what I felt at the time, other than being in total shock and thinking it wasn’t real.”
He had collapsed at Williams’ funeral when he saw a photo of him driving a blue car as a young boy, realizing he would never see him again. Guilt soon followed and he wondered why he hadn’t seen the signs. For a 16-year-old from a small town in Saskatchewan who lived far 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 those other things and, “What could I have done?” ”
And that’s why, as hard as it still is to talk about, Fleury doesn’t mind talking about his friend as part of a wider NHL effort to raise awareness of mental health.
Saturday night’s Kraken game against the Los Angeles Kings at Climate Pledge Arena is part of Hockey Talks Mental Health Awareness, an annual competition initiative run by several clubs. The Kraken and sponsor Premera will distribute 18,000 team flags during the game, 80% teal and 20% white to show 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 seeking help. Fans are encouraged to share messages of support on social media using the #HockeyTalks hashtag which can be shared on the Kraken and Premera channels.
Sheahan’s video discussing his journey to mental health will be shown on the dual scoreboards in the Climate Pledge Arena during Saturday’s game, after which fans with Kraken white flags will be asked to wave.
As a minor leaguer in the Detroit Red Wings system a decade ago, Sheahan was arrested for drunk driving in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Shortly after, he fell into a depression that threatened to derail his career until he sought help.
He now hosts a “Speak Your Mind” podcast on mental health and says seeking help today is crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. He added that a constant barrage of social media and ad algorithms is making life more difficult for everyone.
“I think sometimes we just pick up so many habits, and it’s hard to think for yourself and think normally,” Sheahan said. “We always compare ourselves to other people on Instagram or whatever.
“I just think there’s a lot more stress and a lot more competition in the world right now. In terms of how much money you make and what you look like and all these materialistic things. I just think those are things that can get people bogged down.”
Fleury still texts his late friend’s parents every anniversary of his death.
He has a tattoo on his left arm, three years after Williams’ death. It contains four playing cards, two of which bear his late friend’s initials “K” and “W” along with two of hearts and 10 of spades for the day he died.
Two dice below the cards show a “4” and a “6”, representing Williams’ favorite No. 46 uniform, worn by Colin Fraser, his favorite Red Deer player. Fleury recently sent Williams’ parents a Kraken jersey with the number 46 and their son’s name on it.
Williams was not a hockey player and had a neuromuscular condition, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which affected his nerves and limbs.
His stepfather was a longtime employee of Rebels, and Williams, the same age as Fleury, hung out around the team and went to parties with them.
“He was a great dancer,” said Fleury. “I couldn’t dance, but he would always dance or do something.”
Fleury had been introduced to Williams through a mutual friend, and she and two others formed a close circle.
Blackjack was one of several games Fleury, Williams and three Rebels teammates played in their group, hence the card themed tattoo.
“We actually hung out almost every day,” Fleury said. “We played board games. We did everything you could think of.”
That’s why he and others in their group were so devastated. The team received guidance, but Fleury said it was their coach, Sutter — a former player from a hockey family that produced six NHL siblings — who really made a difference.
“I think he realized how drastic the situation we were going through was, so he was really good,” said Fleury. “He helped me and my three teammates through the whole process.”
That’s why Fleury, like Sheahan, thinks it’s important to use his hockey platform to make people aware of the benefits of seeking help. In the years that followed, Fleury came to realize that his friend was probably fighting his own inner struggle for sanity that eventually prevailed.
“I think I’m very aware now of how I feel or how my loved ones feel,” Fleury said. “That was kind of the most important thing. That I can be there if anyone is ever in a situation like that or needs someone to talk to.”