SUN Hockey Pool

Emotional Fleury retires for good

Theo Fleury couldn't imagine trying to play with another team other than the Flames. (Sun Media/Al...

Theo Fleury couldn't imagine trying to play with another team other than the Flames. (Sun Media/Al Charest)

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:15 AM ET

With trembling hands, watery eyes and his wife by his side, Theo Fleury wrapped up an emotional two weeks by saying goodbye Monday.

Goodbye to a game that took the pride of Russell, Manitoba on a tumultuous ride that should now rightfully end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“Four years ago did I deserve it? No I didn’t,” said the feisty 5-foot-6 forward of the game’s highest honour.

“Do I deserve it now? I think I do. I fought really hard to get my life back.”

Six years after being banned for substance abuse that sent his life spiraling out of control, Fleury was reinstated by the NHL after proving it’s never too late to turn one’s fortunes around.

Despite being released by the Flames Friday, the last thing anyone in Calgary deemed the 41-year-old’s tryout was a failure. Inspirational play in four exhibition games netted him a goal, three assists and a dramatic shootout winner no one in attendance will forget.

But what mattered most to Fleury throughout it all was the reinstatement from Gary Bettman that did so much more than open the door for the tryout — it cleared Fleury’s name, putting to rest endless demons and igniting a spicy Hall-of-Fame debate understandably ignored years back.

“There were a whole bunch of things that have been lost in this thing because people looked only at the way it ended,” said the former 50-goal scorer who averaged 30 markers a season.

“There were so many good things that happened before everything went south. The world juniors (gold 1988), the Turner Cup (also won in ’88), the Canada Cup (gold, 1991), the Stanley Cup (1989), Olympic gold medal (2002). Those experiences got me to where I am today.”

They made him one of the more decorated players of his time, which fits nicely with the Hall-of-Fame stats that saw him score 455 goals and accrue 1,088 points in 1,084 games.

Perhaps every bit as important was the entertainment value the former Flame captain brought to every game and interview — selling the game nightly by virtue of his size, skill and fury, which made him public enemy No. 1 in most cities.

In the short term we can expect to see plenty of him via a book tour, a jersey retirement and likely associations with the Flames organization and a local recovery facility.

What follows should be an emotional ceremony in Toronto where he can thank everyone from his wife/saviour Jennifer and his Cup-winning teammates of ’89 to current and past Flames management types, including Al MacNeil who threw his pen at the draft table and cursed the decision to draft “a frickin’ jockey” 166th overall in 1987.

Hall of Fame president Jeff Denomme confirmed yesterday Fleury was eligible for induction last year by virtue of the fact it had been three years since he last played pro in Belfast.

Voters who lost track of Fleury while he spent years in New Mexico drinking and golfing can’t be faulted for overlooking the Little Big Man whose battles in life also included bouts with Crohn’s Disease.

It’s time he be re-introduced to the discussion as his numbers and accomplishments dwarf those of several previous inductees.

“Do I want to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Absolutely,” said the seven-time all-star, voice cracking only when addressing the support of his brothers and parents.

“I think the greatest honour you could receive as an athlete is to go into the hall. I am looking forward to that day – we’ll see what happens.”

While his endless confidence rubs some the wrong way, his road to recovery included plenty of humbling moments.

“There was a time in my life I’d given up on myself,” he admitted yesterday.

“But I am at peace. I got to retire a Calgary Flame. How many athletes can actually say they left the playing field to a standing ovation? I’m glad we got to say one final good-bye.”

Indeed, Calgary hockey fans have already had a chance to pay him the ultimate tribute.

Now it’s up to the Hall of Fame to do the same.


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