LLOYDMINSTER -- Theo Fleury has never been one to pull punches, so in his Allan Cup news conference yesterday the scrappy little centre didn't just touch on the hot-button issues, he pounded them with both fists.
From racism, alcoholism and jealousy to under-the-table salaries, the NHL and wanting to give back his Olympic gold medal, Fleury opened up with both barrels.
"We're probably the most hated team in senior hockey, but that's OK, we like that," he said before the Horse Lake Thunder were booed lustily in their tournament debut, a 9-2 win over the Lloydminster Border Kings. "You think the Oilers were loved in the '80s? Not a chance. People don't like winners. They carry themselves a different way, they act a different way, people envy that ... and they don't always like that."
But Fleury believes much of the hostility his team faced this year ran much deeper than just competitive jealousy - he says he witnessed an ugly side of Canada he'd just as soon forget, but can't.
"The one thing that's really bothered me through this whole thing is the prejudice, still, in this country when it comes to native people. I've seen it first-hand in every building we go into, how these people are treated, and it's absolutely embarrassing to be a Canadian and know that stuff is still going on.
"I almost called Bob Nicholson and gave him back my gold medal from the Olympics. That's how much this affected me and meant to me. Those are the same people who were cheering for Canada and cheering me on, and at the same time stabbing the people who I have bloodlines with, who are my brothers, so to speak, in the back. That's something that hasn't been a good experience to be around."
DOGGED BY RUMOURS
The Thunder, with former NHLers like Fleury, Gino Odjick and Sasha Lakovic on staff, are undoubtedly the biggest thing to hit senior men's hockey in decades. But just as the biggest draws in baseball are haunted by steroid allegations, the Thunder have been dogged by rumours of exorbitant cash payoffs - from $800 a game to rank-and-file players to six-figures each for the marquee duo. It's a charge he denies every bit as vehemently as Barry Bonds denies knowingly taking the juice.
"Let's get rid of that right now," snapped Fleury, who's flown in from Calgary for the Thunder games.
"I made $50 million playing in the NHL over my career. You think I need money to play for Horse Lake? Not a chance. I'm doing this to have fun. I'm here to enjoy it, I'm here to win an Allan Cup.
"I don't know where these rumours start or where you get your information from but it's absolutely ludicrous. How can a reservation afford to play a million to have us come and play?
"A hundred grand to play senior hockey, that would be some sort of record, wouldn't it? We're like everybody else, we get our travel paid, we get our expenses paid and that's it."
Yeah, and Sammy Sosa forgot how to speak English at the senate hearings. But whatever they're getting, the Thunder juggernaut is earning it - providing senior hockey with national media attention and standing-room crowds that were unheard of until they came along.
"We've played in front of packed houses everywhere we've gone this year," said Fleury, 36. "All of us as a group have provided the First Nations communities of northern Alberta with a sense of pride and belonging in the community ever since we've been up there."
Fleury, who's dropped out of the NHL substance-abuse program - "It's not a program. They punish you for having a disease that's incurable" - and hopes the NHL has forgotten about him, "because I've forgotten about them."
He says that aside from the racial taunts and salary rumours, the Horse Lake experience is just what his often-troubled spirit needed.
"It has rejuvenated me. I feel as good as I've felt in a long time. There was a point there where things were a little shaky. There were some really, really dark times, but those are behind me now.
"I've never quit on anything and I'm certainly not going to quit on life. I have three blessings in my two boys and my little girl. Those are the things that matter the most. Those are the things you fight for on a daily basis. I'm still living for them.
"That's all I've ever tried to do, be the best person I could every single day. It's not easy every day, but it's a lot easier now than it was a long time ago."