CALGARY – Theoren Fleury chose to end his NHL career in the place it began.
Instead of pursuing his NHL comeback with another club, the 41-year-old announced his retirement Monday in Calgary.
“I could not sign with another team,” he said during a news conference. “I get to retire a Calgary Flame.”
The Flames released Fleury on Friday after inviting him to training camp and playing him in four pre-season games. After a six-year absence from the league, Fleury’s hands, head and heart were still NHL-calibre, but his aging legs were not.
With 14 forwards under one-way contracts, Fleury had to be among the team’s top six forwards to justify keeping him over a younger prospect.
While he says he knew Friday his comeback was over, Fleury took the weekend to collect his thoughts. He resisted advice of family, who wanted to him to keep playing, and said “the phone didn’t ring” with any offers from other NHL teams.
“For me to go slug it out in Europe and grind it out another year is not in the cards,” Fleury said. “When I left the parking lot the other day, I knew it was over and I was OK with that. Whether I could have played a full season, we’ll never know that. That’s up for debate. I got to leave the game on my terms.”
About 20 family members, including his wife Jennifer, parents, two brothers and four children, attended the news conference.
Given his hiatus from the NHL, Fleury was a longshot to make the Flames. He spent the first 11 seasons of a 15-year career playing in Calgary.
But the five-foot-six forward was the buzz of Calgary from the moment he was signed to a tryout the day before camp opened Sept. 12.
That was less than 24 hours after he’d convinced NHL commissioner Gary Bettman his alcoholism was under control. The NHL lifted his indefinite suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, which paved the way for Fleury to join the Flames.
Pengrowth Saddledome was full for Calgary’s pre-season games and many were there to watch Fleury’s attempted comeback. He had four points in four games and scored the winner in a shootout in his first game since April 4, 2003.
“Not too many guys get to leave the game to a standing ovation and people chanting their name,” Fleury said. “It was a great story. I was a lot of fun.”
He was a member of the club’s last Stanley Cup team in 1989 and also won an Olympic gold medal with the Canadian team in 2002. What were franchise-record numbers (830 points in 791 games) were surpassed only last year by current captain Jarome Iginla, who now has 851 points.
Fleury has 455 goals and 633 assists in over 1,000 career games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. He also has 34 goals and 38 assists in 77 playoff games.
Fleury, born in Oxbow, Sask., and raised in Russell, Man., has an autobiography hitting the shelves next month. Now that he has his life in order, Fleury hopes his career with receive Hall of Fame consideration in the future.
“Do I want to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame? Absolutely. Do I deserve it? I think I do. Four years ago, did I deserve it? No, I didn’t,” he said, adding that the Hall is incentive to continue his sobriety.
“I’m going to continue to have to live my life the way I’ve chosen to.”
Once critical of the league’s substance abuse and behavioural health program, which is designed to address and treat players’ drug and alcohol addictions, Fleury now supports it.
“I know I’ve said things in the past about the program but that’s because was in a completely different place,” he said. “I was still angry, I was still bitter, I was a lot of things. What it comes down to is nobody likes to face consequences. I had some real consequences I had to face.
“The places I went to and the people I interacted with because of the program got me here today . . . where I’m a solid, functioning human being in society and I can help other people.”
New Flames forward Brian McGrattan, who entered the league’s substance abuse program last year and has been sober for 10 months, found Fleury a source of inspiration.
“We’ve talked quite a bit when he was here,” McGrattan said. “He’s always there for me if I need someone to call or someone to talk to, which is a good feeling. He’s been a good guy for me, obviously having similar issues.
“Also being in the league’s program, words can’t explain what it’s done for me. Maybe to have a guy like him work for the league or something, I think it would be good to help players like me.”
That is one of Fleury’s goals for his life after hockey.
“I got everything out of these last two weeks that I needed to so I could move onto the next part of my life and that’s helping people who have gone through what I’ve gone through,” he said.
“That’s what keeps me sober every day, is helping people who are struggling.”