Theoren Fleury has something more to give the game he loves
The biggest surprise of the Flames 30th Anniversary celebrations came on the eve of training camp when Theoren Fleury received an official invitation to return to the team for a try-out.
"There's a blank sheet of ice out there right now, and every game, every period, there's a different story that gets written," said Fleury.
"I've been around a long time and I've been through a lot of battles and a lot of wars... I just was super happy to earn a tryout with the team I've had tattooed on my heart since my Moose Jaw days."
Revered as one of the greatest to ever don the Flaming C, Fleury announced his intention to pursue a return engagement in the NHL just over a month ago, and only days ago was officially reinstated into the NHL after being suspended in 2003 for violating the leagues' substance abuse policy. Now six years removed from the NHL, the 41-year-old is approaching camp as if he were a rookie again.
"I have to earn everything again and I'm okay with that. I don't want to be treated more special than anybody else," said Fleury. "I'm here to make a real good team that has a real good chance to do some really good things this year. If I can help in any way by being around then that's why I'm here."
With the expectations surrounding the Flames this season, nostalgia is not the only reason Fleury is around. Having skated against him during his playing days, Flames head coach Brent Sutter is looking forward to seeing what his former opponent can do.
"I'm proud of him, and I'm glad the organization is giving him an opportunity to see what can happen," said Sutter.
"I think obviously that it's a good thing. Theo's worked hard to put himself in this position and the organization has given him an opportunity to see where it goes. We'll take it day to day and monitor it and see how it goes, you never know."
In 791 career games for the Calgary Flames, Fleury amassed 364 goals and 830 points, good for second all-time. Though the story of his comeback is wonderful so far, the Flames have such a deep group attending training camp, that Fleury truly has a daunting task to keep the fairytale going.
"I feel privileged and honoured the Flames would give me this opportunity, said Fleury. "I've had nothing but positive feedback from the guys I'm going to be competing against, I guess it's been everything I expected and thought about."
Some of his teammates had been helping Fleury prepare for the challenge of an NHL camp by playing with over the summer. One of them was Craig Conroy, who used to loathe lining up against the diminutive forward.
"I hated him, I mean really. He was kind of yappy, he works hard, he's in your face, he's always about winning but he competes hard for not a big guy," said Conroy, who was very impressed with what he saw from Fleury on the ice.
"Everything looks good. (Fleury) is in there, he's working hard, he came in great shape, and he’s been doing everything he possibly can do to get in shape. It's amazing, he's the same weight, he looks good, and he can still score goals if Westside (Recreation Centre)is any indication," said Conroy, who was one of a group of current Flames to hit the ice with Fleury over the summer.
"I'm not surprised by anything Theo does. He's a small guy but he's got a big heart, he's going to work as hard as he can and the thing is he can still score goals. He's got good hands, the skating is always a big factor, but he gets there. He's so smart, he finds open ice, and when he gets an opportunity in all the scrimmages and things we've had, he buries goals."
"I met him three weeks ago," recounted Olli Jokinen. "He's been skating with us, he's here doing his testing and, it looks good. Hopefully he can make the team and that would be pretty amazing. A guy like him coming back, seeing that smile on his face, you wish him all the best. He's been good on the ice so I think he's going to surprise a lot of people."
"He is an energetic guy who brings a lot of experience to our camp. He was moving well (at informal skates with Flames players prior to camp). To be reinstated and be at camp here, I know he is excited," agreed Dion Phaneuf.
Fortunately for Fleury, in a sea of brand new teammates, there is one familiar face he has lined up with in the past, Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
"I'm very happy for him, that he's cleared, ready to go, and doing so well. I played with him a number of years ago, got to know him, and got to play with him when I first came in. I got to see his talent up close and see just how good he is. Not many people are more talented then he is," said Iginla.
"It is a huge undertaking. Even if he wasn't out, he is 41 and he's a very determined guy. He's very talented and very skilled and that's never a question. Anyone who's watched him or knows anything about him knows his determination isn't a question either."
Iginla and Fleury share another kinship, as it was towards the end of last season that Iginla passed Fleury as the Flames all-time points leader. Fleury for his part admitted reclaiming the record was not on his agenda.
"Jarome can keep it," said Fleury, who also made it clear that financial considerations were not an issue either.
"This isn't a money issue, this is way more than a money issue, and this is part of who I am... I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could do this."
To prepare for his return engagement in the NHL, Fleury underwent a rigorous physical regiment, including pilates three days a week, conditioning five days a week, strength training three days a week, and a nutritionist.
"I looked at it as an investment in what I wanted to accomplish, and I knew I had to be in the best possible shape that I can be in," said Fleury, who was pleased to see all the effort pay dividends.
"I've done 14 fitness tests with the Calgary Flames and this is the best one I've ever done. I'm pretty excited. I knew that if I ever got to this stage I'd need to be ready for the first day of camp and I've succeeded in doing that. It was a lot harder in the old days, we did a lot more, everything was basically maxed, and you did it till you dropped, passed out, or puked."
Alcohol and substance abuse problems cut Fleury's career short, and time has given him perspective on that era of his life.
"When I was in Chicago that last year the last place that I wanted to be was at the rink, it wasn't fun anymore, everything had piled up," said Fleury.
"I'll take full responsibility, I made the choices and I made the decisions. For the first time in my life I faced some real consequences for my actions."
It was after his first game of senior hockey, one minus-60 evening in Manitoba last November that Fleury realized his love for the game again.
"I went through my process, and there's one thing left that I needed to accomplish before I could truly say goodbye to the game that's given me everything that I have," said Fleury.
"If I didn't try to do this I think I would have regretted it, and I don't have any regrets about my life except for this one. It's important for me, it's important for my soul and my sanity to be able to try to accomplish this."
Today he has come full circle, overcoming trials and tribulations to return to the sport he loves. Having overcome and accomplished so much, Fleury hopes his efforts can inspire others, both in and out of hockey.
"It's been a long road to get to today, but it's one of those things that I needed to do. Hopefully at the end of the day everybody gets something out of this, not only me, but other people who have had problems and had issues. That's part of who I am now, my life is about service and helping other people because there's a lot of people who four years ago helped me get back opn my feet and supported me," said Fleury.
"I look at it as one more opportunity to inspire a whole bunch of people that have the same disease and issues that I have... kind of like a living amends"
A sizeable chunk of time has passed since Fleury skated in the NHL, since then many aspects of the game have been adjusted, leading many to question if the game may have passed him by. According to his coach, figuring that out is the next part of the journey.
"(The game) has changed lots, and that's all part of the process now isn't it? And how he can adjust and adapt and that's why we'll take it day to day. There's no pressure. Whether things work or not it has zero reflection on his career because he's had a great career," said Sutter.
For Fleury, this question is especially intriguing.
"The game has changed, how much? I don't know, that's kind of why I'm here too, I'm curious. Everybody tells me the game is better, and I want to know for a fact that it is. Hopefully I still belong and I can still take up space and be a contributing member of the team," said Fleury, who also knows that there are naysayers lurking, waiting to prove him wrong.
"I read blogs, I read comments, I know nobody gives me a chance to do this, but it's probably not a good idea to do that," said Fleury.
"If I can get here, then I certainly think I can get a little further... I won't leave anything in the tank; it's all going to be left (on the ice)."