Initially, Al MacNeil could be counted among the skeptics. And they were legion.
“When they picked me, Al actually threw his pen across the draft table,’’ laughed Theoren Fleury on Monday. “ ‘Geez,’ he said, ‘not another jockey!’
“Funny thing is, he wound up being one of my biggest boosters.’’
This jockey had that effect on a lot of people. One look at the goods was enough to win the doubters over. Magical things do come in small packages.
“All Fleury’s life,’’ marvelled MacNeil, then assistant GM, mere months after the pen-tossing episode, as the antagonistic elf grabbed centre stage at Calgary Flames’ training camp in September of 1988, “people have been telling him to get into another line of work — shoot pool or maybe bag groceries.
“On the surface, when we drafted him, you’re saying to yourself ‘Why waste a pick on THIS gu y?’ Then you see him play and your head does a 360 on a swivel. He’s like Henri Richard; they only brought him to Montreal for a cup of coffee to please big brother. He stayed 16 years. You couldn’t get the damn puck off him.
“Same thing here.
“None of the other hotshot little guys gives me the jump this guy does. He’s special.’’
Yes. He was.
In front of 20 family members, including wife Jennifer and his kids, thanking everyone save the guy who butters the popcorn at the concession stands, Theoren Fleury walked away from hockey on Monday. On his terms.
Sober. Reinstated. And once again, for old times sake, the talk of the town.
“When I left the Saddledome on Friday (after being released), I knew this part of my life had come to an end,’’ he admitted. “I knew in my heart it was over. I’d made my peace with it.
“I needed to this for me. Only for me this time. I remember standing at (former Flames’ co-owner) Doc Seaman’s funeral last year, and one phrase of Doc’s really stuck with me: Leave it better than you found it. In the last two weeks, I think I’ve accomplished that.
“I have nothing left to prove to myself. Finally.’’
He’s committed to spending a couple of months promoting his upcoming tell-all autobiography, Playing With Fire. Then he’ll sit down with the Flames to discuss a possible position within the organization and hopes to assist in establishing a substance-abuse treatment centre in the city.
“I didn’t (come back) to sell a book,’’ he bristled slightly. “How many people could lose 40 pounds since last February and come to camp in the shape I did? I took this seriously. I just needed to get it out of my system. I needed to do it in order to get on with my life.
“When I was younger, I didn’t have any of the tools to deal with life on life’s terms. I’m better equipped to do that today. I’m looking forward to the future with excitement.’’
He exited defiant as ever, refusing to concede that the game had passed him by after six years away. “That,’’ he replied evenly, “is still up for debate. I’ll let you guys mull that over.
“Whether I could’ve played a full season . . . we’ll never know.’’
Selected in the eighth round of the 1987 draft, Fleury arrived here to stay on Jan. 1st, 1989, a New Year’s baby, after tearing up it up with the Flames’ IHL farm club in Salt Lake City. (“How good is he without the puck?’’ blurted Golden Eagles’ coach Paul Baxter. “I don’t know. He’s always got it.”) Billed as a carnival act, a kind of Eddie Gaedel midget-at-the-plate publicity stunt, he stuck around this town long enough to help celebrate a Stanley Cup parade and blossom into the franchise’s all-time goal-scoring leader.
“Oh, he was definitely a flyer,’’ recalls former Flames’ GM Al Coates. “It always amuses me, the people internally and externally who, in hindsight, insist that they knew all along that he’d become the star player he did. That is an absolute crock. There might’ve been one person who believed it. And that was Theo.
“To me, his comeback wasn’t a hockey story. It was a life story. Everyone who knows Theo is proud of him, for what he’s accomplished in his life off the ice most importantly.’’
“You’ve certainly got to give him his due,’’ complimented St. Louis vice-president of hockey operations Al MacInnis, from Sweden where the Blues are preparing to open the season.
“How many guys his size did what he did for as long as he did it?
“And who knows what demons he was dealing with. Then to attempt a comeback the way he did, at what, 40 (41)?
“I’m sure he didn’t leave the way he wanted to and that played a big part in his decision to try.
“The guys are bigger now, the game is faster, the conditioning is better. And while I didn’t actually see him play, from the articles I read, he held his own. Good for him.’’
When formulating a final decision, Calgary and the organization he grew up in figured prominently in Fleury’s thoughts. He simply could not imagine going anywhere else, putting on any other jersey ever again.
“I get to retire a Calgary Flame. I HAD to retire a Calgary Flame. It’s been a long journey. It’s time to put down some roots. And there’s no better place than here.
“To the fans, what can I say? Please don’t be angry. In the last two weeks, I pulled on your heart strings. I made those of you who were doubters in the beginning, believers.
“We got to say one final goodbye to each other.
“How many guys get to leave the game to a standing ovation?’’
Down at locker-room level at the Pengrowth Saddledome, over two decades after it all started, on the day Theoren Fleury bid a final farewell, Al MacNeil smiled self-deprecatingly when reminded of the jockey line and the draft-table pen-tossing.
“Boy,’’ he whistled, “did I get THAT wrong.
“Theo turned out to be probably the most exciting player in franchise history. He’s become icon in this city, like Lanny.
“You know, we had a lot of really good players here, a lot of fireworks up and down the lineup, but this little guy, he was the one who lit the fuse.’’
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