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The Game of Life

Chris Therien’s Flyers career was a prelude to a world of alcoholism, recovery, family trust and now a mission to help others conquer those same demons.

A door closed on the longest part of Chris Therien’s career, but another one opened.

Opened and has given Therien, a former Flyers defenseman who later spent 14 years as a popular broadcaster with the team, more satisfaction than any of his previous jobs.

Opened and has given the person affectionately known as Bundy a new purpose in life.

Opened and has enabled Therien to help others who are trying to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction.

Therien, 49, knows all about alcoholism, which, for him, became intense after the sudden death of his only sibling in 2006. He battled it late in his playing career, battled it during his early years as a broadcaster.

While in his final days as a player with the Flyers, Therien said he was “basically told to get out, that I couldn’t live like this.”

Fifteen years later, he is on a much different path, one that points alcoholics and drug abusers in the right direction.

Therien and three business partners recently purchased the Limitless Recovery Center in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. And when the former hockey player talks to those in recovery, he speaks from the heart.

“I’ve lived it,” he said.

Therien, the longest-tenured defenseman in the Flyers’ history, hopes to eventually have recovery centers all over the Philadelphia area, on both sides of the river. For now, the first stop is in Philly.

“There aren’t a ton of recovery centers downtown. I want [ours] to be the one where people say, ‘Wow, they really took care of my loved one, my friend, or my family member,’ ” he said in an interview earlier this month. “And I’m active. I’m in there during the day, and we’re trying to get a new building, which we’re going to need. We’re going to need way more space. These young guys did a great job starting it up [as] almost a mom-and-pop shop with the basics, and we want to elevate it and raise the bar.”

The need for recovery centers has never been greater. According to the Addiction Center, almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, but only 10% of them receive treatment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 81,230 people died in the U.S. of drug overdoses in a one-year period that ended last May, a record for a 12-month span. Nationwide, excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths per year, according to the CDC, or 261 deaths per day.

The Philadelphia area is not immune to those numbers, and Therien said he feels a “responsibility” to help as many as possible.

“There’s too many people suffering, especially through the pandemic,” he said.

Sober milestone

On social media earlier this month, Therien posted that he had been sober for 10 years, saying on Facebook that the journey “has fulfilled me as a person and carved a positive and lasting pathway forward for my family and friends.”

“Know what I miss about it?” he wrote on Twitter about the absence of alcohol. “Not a thing!”

Thousands showed their support. Some talked about their own battles. Some talked about how Therien was a role model.

“Very proud of you,” said ex-Flyers star Reggie Leach, who overcame alcohol addiction 36 years ago and, along with his son, Jamie, teaches hockey and life skills to youngsters all over North America. “It’s a great feeling when you help others.”

After posting his messages, Therien received dozens of phone calls.

“I had two former NHL teammates call me crying that day,” Therien said. “Crying because they’re still in addiction right now.”

One former teammate remembered Therien’s NHL days and how he acted off the ice, how his beverages of choice were beer, red wine, and vodka.

“You were a wild man,” the ex-teammate said. “You were a great teammate, but, boy, you partied and it’s amazing you got 10 years of sobriety.”

“There were times you just want to put your head the end of the day, we’re stronger than ever at this point.”

Isabella Therien, daughter of former Flyer Chris Therien

Said Therien, who lives in Marlton with his wife, Diana, and has three daughters and a son, ages 14 to 22: “I’ll be honest with you, if I didn’t get those 10 years, I’d have lost everything. My kids. My family. The opportunity to do the hockey [broadcasting] job I did for 14 years after hockey.”

Therien’s daughter, Isabella, 22, is a senior finance major at Loyola Maryland, where she is a basketball standout at the Baltimore-based university. Because she is the oldest child in the family, her father’s drinking affected her more than her siblings.

“I remember it and, to be honest, it makes you grow up really fast,” she said last week. “I remember it the most when I was around 6 to 10. There are times for me that are extremely hard to think about. But looking back now, there are so many life lessons I’m able to take from my dad’s experience and his process through all this.

“Ultimately, it was hard, and yes there were times you just want to put your head under, but with our family, that’s just not how we operate. We stick together when times are extremely rough, and at the end of the day, we’re stronger than ever at this point.”

Her voice oozes with pride when talking about her father’s demons and how he conquered them after a battle that lasted for about half of her life. She calls him the “epitome of strength and perseverance” and says he pushes his family members “to be the best we can be.”

“My dad, “she said, “is a rock star. I’m so incredibly proud of him.”

On Twitter, she called him “the strongest man I know. I’m lucky I get to call you dad. Breaking barriers one day at a time.”

Isabella remembers when her household was filled with arguing between her dad and mom when she was younger.

“Being the oldest, I kind of had to rally the troops together,” she said of her siblings. “A part of it was me having to tell them everything was going to be OK, but I was trying to rationalize it myself.”

Her mother, she said, held the family together.

“My mom was always there for him and telling us everything would be OK, telling us that no matter what happens to dad, we’re going to be there for him,” Isabella said. “I give my mom the most credit because I know she went through the most with him and stuck by him. I don’t think he would have been able to do it without her.”

‘Social drinker’ turned ...

Therien said he was just a “social drinker” when he attended Providence College and was focused on hockey. “I went to the Olympic team in Canada in ’94 and wasn’t much of a drinker. My first three years in the NHL, I’d say it was moderate. It was normal. I’d go hard sometimes, like anybody, and then it started to get [worse].”

His drinking escalated in his final NHL season, which was with the Flyers in 2005-06.

“My last year, I shouldn’t have even been playing hockey,” he said. “I should have been in a rehab. I got a concussion in January, and I ended up drinking. That was my lowest low and I thought I couldn’t get any lower. I was basically told to get out, that I couldn’t live like this.”

“My last year, I shouldn’t have even been playing hockey. I should have been in a rehab.”

Former Flyer Chris Therien

Looking back, Therien feels his drinking got worse during the 2004-05 lockout, a labor dispute that canceled the entire season, the first time one of the four sports leagues was wiped out for a full year.

“The lockout, I think, sent a lot of guys on their merry way to whatever,” Therien said. “And then when everybody was trying to get players the next summer, I came back to the Flyers that year. The first half, I wasn’t too, too bad, but after that, I had a concussion and my head was buzzing and I couldn’t drive a car at night.

“And a month after that, I felt so distant, depressed, alone, disconnected, and away from everything in my life. And my reward for that was the sudden death of my sister on June 17 of 2006. It’s like you’re down and out on all fours, and somebody hits you in the head with a two-by-four. Makes sure you’re finished off.”

After the unexpected death of his sister, Sarah Beth, of a cardiac event in 2006, Therien’s drinking got worse. He called his sister his best friend.

“She had a heart ailment we never knew about,” Therien said. “She was 5-9, 130 pounds. Beautiful girl. She was 32 when she passed and she was my only sibling. She was one of the great loves of my life; she was just an amazing person. She knew I had problems with alcohol, and there’s nothing she wanted more than for me to get sober for my kids. That was what the most important thing was. I had three young kids at the time. And I knew myself [that I had a problem]. I wasn’t the dumb drunk. I was the guy who said, ‘Jesus, man, this is bad.’ I knew I had a problem and I identified it.”

A little over three weeks after his sister’s death, Therien checked into a rehab facility, Caron, near Reading, on July 10, 2006. “To tell you the body of work that I put in, my blood alcohol level was 0.63%. I basically had more alcohol in my blood stream than I had blood,” he said.

According to the American Addiction Centers, any level at or above 0.40% “may put you in a coma or cause sudden death because your heart or breathing will suddenly stop.”

“I should have called the league in February and I might have been able to salvage something,” Therien said. “I couldn’t stop and I was afraid to ask for help, and that’s what happens to a lot of people.”

After going to Caron -- five years after he identified he had an alcohol problem -- Therien was sober for two years before he started drinking again, though not as much as in the past. Being on the road with the team as a broadcaster, he stayed to himself.

“It was more of a quiet thing, hiding, staying away from people,” Therien said about his return to drinking. “I’d get like a night out somewhere and I’d sneak off, and that only lasted for a bit and then I was kind of getting back into the same viscous cycle again, but not ever to the level it was. I would go maybe two weeks and then stop for three months. Before, I would just go all the time. So I was more aware of it, more of a weekend-warrior type, but if I’d go, the problem for me was, I wouldn’t stop. It was like, one is too many and 1,000 is not enough.”

Therien said he was in a “bad, bad place. I wasn’t as bad after that because I realized I was trying to get to an end. But, again, relapse they say is an important part of recovery. And on Feb. 7 of 2011, I hadn’t been drinking much before that, but that was the day I said, ‘All right, this is it dude. You’re going to do this one day at a time,’ and every single morning for about four months, I’d pull myself out of bed at 7 o’clock. I’d get in the car, freezing cold, and I’d pull myself to AA. That’s where I met Rick Halverson, who has become like my little brother. He’s an amazing guy. His sponsor is Paul Holmgren, and my sponsor is Rick. Of course, there’s a lot of guys I played with who have been in the program. Paul has been pretty open about it, and he’s also been an amazing person for me in recovery as well.”

Holmgren is a recovered alcoholic who has been a player, coach, general manager and president of the Flyers. “Every day is a milestone, and I think it’s admirable Chris has forged his way and taken on this project,” said Holmgren, now a senior adviser with the Flyers. “There’s a lot of people that are not only looking for help, but need help.”

Therien said he had a moment of clarity in his sobriety process.

“When I finally got this right,” he said, “is when I surrounded myself with other sober people. You realize, they’re just like you. We’re still crazy. We’re fun people, we’re normal people. But we don’t drink anymore. That’s when I really got it. I got the structure of it all when I stayed around after an AA meeting and hung around with five or six guys in the parking lot.”

Giving back

A few years ago, Therien started getting involved with the recovery community when he was asked to speak at a rehab center, Enlightened Solutions, in Atlantic City. It was a unique opportunity, he thought, to give back and share his recovery story “and the suffering I went through over a period of time.”

Until then, Therien said, “I was always kind of hesitant to publicly share my story because I didn’t want anyone to judge me. Maybe I wasn’t ready. [Some of] my kids were still in high school – and they knew [about his alcohol battles], especially my oldest.”

But he decided the timing was right and spoke to the group in Atlantic City for close to a half hour about how drinking “caught up to me at the end of my [playing] career.”

“When I finally got this right is when I surrounded myself with other sober people.”

Chris Therien on his efforts to record and how it led to his new mission of helping others

He told them about the death of his sister in 2006 and how he went to rehab a few weeks later.

“You hit a bottom and that was the bottom for me,” he said. “So I presented that story to people in the recovery community and that’s where my journey began.”

Therien worked there for about a year while still broadcasting Flyers games.

About 13 months ago, Therien learned there was an Intensive Outpatient (IOP) facility in Fishtown, and the owner was considering selling the business. “But as it turned out, they ended up not wanting to sell at the time,” Therien said.

Time marched on, and by the end of the summer, after learning he would no longer be a part of NBC Sports Philadelphia, Therien “put myself into high gear” in his search to find a new venture.

By then, the owner of the Limitless Recovery Center in Fishtown had decided to sell. Therien and his group bought it on Dec. 31 and retained the center’s previous partner, Dom Schiavone, a 30-year-old recovered heroin addict “who is absolutely amazing with people,” Therien said. “He came from a good family and got mixed up in heroin coming out of high school, which I see in a lot of these kids.

“The biggest reason I wanted to do this is because you see what kids go through in high school – especially with drugs and alcohol being so much more prevalent today —and that was my audience originally. Trying to reach out to so many of these young kids and let them know, ‘Hey, this is what can happen if you choose the life of addiction.’ It’s not necessarily that you always choose it, but you get yourself entwined in a life of addiction. The wheels can come off pretty fast, and it’s a (difficult) road to get yourself back on track.”

Understanding the pain

Therien, who is Limitless Recovery’s chief wellness officer, said he and Schiavone, the company’s president and chief operating officer, are the faces of the operation.

“To do this job well, you have to have experience behind it and to understand the pain of the people you are meeting with,” Therien said.

Schiavone, 30, who lives in Haddon Heights, has been clean for eight years, and he is good friends with Therien’s sponsor, Halverson. That’s how he met Therien nearly two years ago.

“We took a liking to each other, and work pretty well together,” Schiavone said. “I like the way he handles himself and we just kind of teamed up.”

The fact they both beat addictions – after they went through relapses -- is also a part of their bond. So is the fact they have a burning desire to help those who are struggling for answers to their addictions.

“We want to break that stigma that comes with being an addict or an alcoholic,” Schiavone said. “We want to get you back to living life on life’s terms. You can have a life, you can have a family, you can have a job, you can own your own home. You don’t have to be looked down upon” because of addiction or alcoholism.

Therien wants those in recovery to know “you didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t be ashamed of it. You got entangled with a drug or a drink and now you have a choice to fix that. … It’s the same as breaking your arm or separating your shoulder. There’s no difference in [the sense] you have a chance to fix that injury and heal it and move on from it. You can get help.”

The Fishtown facility, which can accommodate 30 patients, has a doctor on site, along with three therapists, and a clinical director.

In time, the plan is to move to a bigger building close to their current location, Therien said. His group also owns a row home across the street from the recovery center, and it serves as a sober house and can sleep 10. Those in recovery live and sleep there and can go to work or rehab classes.

The sober house, Schiavone said, is a vital part of the recovery process.

“There’s too many people suffering, especially through the pandemic.”

Chris Therien, co-owner of Limitless Recovery

“The camaraderie factor” and the interactions at the sober house are instrumental in getting the participants to believe in themselves,” Schiavone said. “Everybody is trying to relate to someone and just belong.”

Usually a loved one calls and sets the process in motion for someone with an addiction.

“I get them in a detox center for 7-10 days, and they enter a program where they can stay for 30, 60, or 90 days at a rehab facility,” Therien said. “Then we are the aftercare for them, the IOP, the intensive outpatient, to kind of keep those people on their feet and let them know that they’re not alone. That’s where our clinicians and our counselors come in.”

Therien is hands-on and speaks to the patients. With his massive 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame, his background as a pro athlete, and the fact he beat alcoholism, Therien has an attentive audience.

It also helps that his enthusiasm level is off the charts.

“He has this presence about him,” Schiavone said.

Because Therien is not yet a certified counselor, he is only allowed to speak to clients if a clinician is also in the room.

“I will go to classes and get certified,” he said. “This is my last stop, man. Everything has kind of pointed me to where I am right now. I know 10 years for people seems to be a long time sober, but I felt for me to do this job, I had to have the wherewithal and the confidence in my own sobriety, and I think you have to have 10 years to be an owner of a place like this. I have clout now. I don’t get side-looked anymore by people when I talk about addiction. They know I’m serious about it now. Time has given me that opportunity.”

The goal of the recovery community is to “teach people to live life,” Therien said. “You can’t be hidden behind walls. In rehab, it’s great for the 30 days you are there, but you have to be able to translate your sobriety to living a normal life and being out in the public. You’re not always going to have those barriers of safety of a recovery center behind you. So we want people to learn, like I did, to live in society and be a productive member of it. Be good to others and try to live a life that’s clean. That’s our message.”

Broadcasting career ends

Before this season, Therien was let go by NBC Sports Philadelphia, continuing a pattern of the network’s massive layoffs since August.

“I can’t say I was expecting what happened to me with the Flyers, but it was kind of a sign of the times with COVID and everything that is going on,” he said. “Certainly I was disappointed at that, but you have to move on. That’s the way my whole life has been and I wasn’t going to sit around and fret over it.

“When something is taken away from you, you have to replace it with something else.”

As for his career as a pro hockey player, Therien said, “I don’t regret it. We make choices in life that give us our journey that we call our life. There’s not one single day of my NHL career I regret – except for that last four months of 05-06, when I was just not even a shell of the person I once was, a character person. It was a disaster and an embarrassment to me.”

“I love people. I love being around people. And I like being good to people.”

Chris Therien on the importance of helping others

Therien was asked if he was ever drunk when he played.

He paused.

“I would absolutely say yes,” he said.

He recalled a specific game when “there was probably a good chance I had some drinks the night before,” and he went behind the net, where his helmet collided with the shoulder pad of Flyers goalie Robert Esche. Therien was concussed, and it sent him “off on another pasture” of drinking.

To this day, Therien isn’t sure if his drinking affected him in that game.

“I’ve seen guys in addiction in games before, and it’s tough. Whether they were on pills or cocaine or [whatever]. But to answer your question, have I played a game drunk? Yeah, I have, probably from a hangover,” he said.

At peace with himself

Now he is at peace with himself, comfortable in almost any surrounding. Especially when connecting with recovering addicts/alcoholics.

“I love people. I love being around people. And I like being good to people,” he said. “At the end of the day, I don’t think I’ve lost my soul through this. This hurt. I had to look myself in the eyes and say, ‘Dude, you’re lost! You’re not going to win. You’re not going to switch from brown booze to white clear. It doesn’t matter. You’re a loser at this and you’re going to have to mail it in.’ I think that’s important for recovery. You have to understand who you are and what’s right for you in your life. Every single road I’ve taken in my life has taken me to this path to begin my journey on. It took me a long time to get there, but I’m OK talking about it now.”

Therien looks at “the success of my kids as my greatest accomplishment” and that they keep him grounded. “Nothing is more important to me in this world than being a dad. It’s all I ever wanted. I love my kids more than anything on this planet, like we all do.

“I now have the best relationship anyone can have with his kids,” he added. “Is it perfect? Nothing is perfect. Any road block or any argument we have now can be overcome because it doesn’t involve a substance.”

His four children are all quality athletes. Isabella, 22, and Ava, 20, are scholarship basketball players at Loyola in Baltimore. Alexa, 17, is a Cherokee High senior who is going to play basketball next season on a scholarship to Boston University. Chris Jr., 14, is a 6-2, 215-pound eighth grader who is a budding football and hockey player.

“Hockey is going smaller, so maybe we’ll just stick him at tight end or the offensive line,” Therien said with a laugh.

Joy of sobriety

Therien has been extremely involved with his kids, whether attending his daughters’ high school and collegiate basketball games, or helping coach his son’s hockey team for four years. Being sober enabled him to enjoy that time, he said.

It also allowed him to analyze Flyers games, and he said his broadcast partners knew of his previous drinking issues and were always there for him. (As an aside, he began running five miles a day in 2015 to look better on TV, and, at one point, went from 321 pounds to 209.)

“You didn’t do anything wrong. Don’t be ashamed of it.”

Chris Therien to those battling substance abuse

“I was able to do the games with pride and be able to convey what I wanted to say about hockey,” he said. “I loved that. That’s something I did for the fans. I never did it for me. I always wanted to be tethered to the hockey of this town and it’s given me so, so much. My wife is from the area and my kids were all born here. And now, to have a recovery center in Philadelphia was the sell for me and what I wanted to happen. I had to be tethered to this area and this community for the rest of my life.”

When he talks to those battling recovery issues, he tells them, simply: “I did this. You can do it. Nobody can look me in the eye and say they can’t do it. I had a 0.63 blood-alcohol level. I should have been dead.”

He said his “message to people is one of hope. I don’t look at it as if I was a drunk scumbag or I was loaded on the ice. I look at it as saying that it unfortunately happened and now I can do something about it.”

No longer is Therien embarrassed at himself. No longer does he feel depressed. No longer does he feel alone.

He has found his purpose.

“If you want a better life, give me a call. I’ve got your back,” he said of those trying to recover. “I’ve got the whole city’s back. This will be the most rewarding journey I’ve ever been on in my life.”