CALGARY – Theoren Fleury’s first NHL game in over six years didn’t definitely answer the question if he can be a regular in the league, but he punctuated his return in storybook style.
The 41-year-old scored the winning goal in a shootout for the Calgary Flames in a 5-4 pre-season win over the New York Islanders on Thursday.
“It’s been a long road. I’m extremely proud of myself,” Fleury said.
He’s attempting to return to a level of hockey he hasn’t played since April 4, 2003, which was his last game with the Chicago Blackhawks.,
Fleury was a non-factor Thursday until he was chosen Calgary’s second shooter in the shootout and scored on the Islanders’ goaltender Kevin Poulin.
“I don’t miss those chances ever,” Fleury declared. “Not in the big moments. Never have, never will.”
Fleury was a five-foot-six buzzsaw of a player during his previous 15 seasons in the league and 11 of them were with Calgary.
His tenacious and emotional style of play won the hearts of many Calgay fans when he played in the city. That fondness for him was evident Thursday as the full house at Pengrowth Saddledome chanted his name and relished his shootout goal.
Fleury did not demonstrate the speed and timing that will allow him to play his trademark feisty style. He showed he’s still got the hands to score on a breakaway with his shootout goal.
“I’ve been there many times before,” Fleury continued. “Just preparing myself for one chance, one opportunity and when it happens I’m ready for it and I usually get the job done.”
It was his first goal since March 19, 2003. The shootout was added to the NHL game format during his long hiatus.
Flames head coach Brent Sutter said the players all wanted Fleury in the shootout.
“It was pretty unanimous on the whole bench,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”
Fleury logged 11 and a half minutes of ice time, including two minutes on the power play. During regulation, Fleury did not carry the puck and opted to chip it safely up ice when he touched it.
He made a half hit on Islanders forward Greg Moore in the first period and recorded one shot on goal in the second. Fleury was on the ice for Calgary’s first goal of the game scored by linemate Nigel Dawes.
The lowlight was his hooking penalty early in the third that led to New York’s fourth goal.
“I thought he played OK,” Sutter said.
The Flames have five more pre-season games prior to the season-opener Oct. 1 against Vancouver.
Fleury has time to work off rust and play his way into Calgary’s plans, which could include sending him to their new American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C.
“It’s up to management to decide if they want to have a guy like me on the team,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do. I didn’t really have any expectations coming to camp.
“Now it’s just a matter of trying to fit in and trying to win a spot on this team.
He’s battled alcoholism during his career and had been under indefinite suspension for violating the NHL’s substance abuse policy. After gaining control of his life and his battle with the bottle, Fleury wanted to try to play in the NHL again because he wasn’t happy leaving it under suspension.
Fleury, who grew up in Russell, Man., trained hard over the summer to drop pounds and gain muscle, while he also skated with NHL players in hopes that the league would let him back in.
The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association granted his reinstatement last week and less than 48 hours later, he reported for Saturday’s fitness testing with the Flames.
“The first day on Saturday when I tested the way that I tested, I think that completely took the nerves out,” he said. “It reiterated the fact I’m not going to be behind too much.”
What were his franchise-leading numbers (364 goals, 830 points) were surpassed only last season by captain Jarome Iginla.
Wearing the No. 14 he wore for the Flames before he was traded to Colorado on Feb. 28, 1999, Fleury received a loud ovation when he stepped onto the ice for warm-up, and when his face flashed on the electronic scoreboard during the anthem.
Spectators began rising to their feet as he skated to the edge of the faceoff circle for his first shift and chants of “Theo, Theo” sounded in the building.
Despite his 455 goals and collect 633 assists in over 1,000 career games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Blackhawks, Fleury admitted to feeling nervous prior to Thursday’s game.
“I slept for 45 seconds this afternoon and that’s about it,” he said.