CALGARY – The head, heart and hands are still there, but the legs aren’t and that’s why the Calgary Flames released Theoren Fleury, according to head coach Brent Sutter.
Fleury, 41, attempted a comeback with the first NHL team he played for in his 15-year career, despite a six-year absence from the league and a long battle with alcoholism.
The business of hockey doused a intriguing pre-season storyline as the small, charismatic forward bucked long odds to return to the NHL.
Calgary has 14 forwards on one-way contracts. Fleury needed to be one of the team’s top six forwards in order for the Flames to justify keeping him over a younger prospect.
“He hadn’t played the game in six years and the legs just aren’t where they need to be,” Sutter said Friday. “It’s not his fault. That just happens.
The Flames were not interested in sending Fleury to their new American Hockey League affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C.
“There’s some real good prospects in this organization and they need playing time,” Sutter said.
Fleury, who was born in Oxbow, Sask., and grew up in Russell, Man., intended to spend the weekend considering his next step and is expected to address his future Monday.
“I said in the beginning that no matter what the outcome, this would be a success story,” he said in a statement released by the Flames.
Calgary’s final pre-season game is Saturday at home against Vancouver. Fleury’s departure left 16 forwards, eight defencemen and three goaltenders on the Flames’ training camp roster.
Fleury had four points, including a goal, in four pre-season games and scored the shootout winner in his first game back Sept. 17. While his skills and timing revived during training camp, he lacked speed and stamina.
“He thought the game well and still had the heart for it and still had a knack with the puck when it came to him and he knew what to do with it, but the pace of the game . . . regular season is completely different than exhibition,” Sutter said. “It’s going to pick up 10-fold.”
It was perhaps an ominous sign of Fleury’s future with the Flames that he didn’t practise Thursday after playing the previous night in Edmonton. He was told Friday morning general manager Darryl Sutter, who is Brent’s brother, decided to release him.
Fleury played 11 seasons with the Flames before he was traded to Colorado in 1999 and was with the club for its last Stanley Cup in 1989.
What were his franchise-leading numbers (364 goals, 830 points) were surpassed only last season by captain Jarome Iginla.
He has 455 goals, 633 assists in over 1,000 NHL games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.
Feisty and emotional, he won fans’ hearts carving out a stellar career despite his size. He’d been the talk of the town since the Flames announced they’d signed him to a tryout contract the first day of training camp Sept. 12.
Less than 48 hours earlier, the NHL had lifted its indefinite suspension of Fleury for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Fleury demonstrated to commissioner Gary Bettman that he has his alcoholism under control.
He wanted back into the league because he didn’t like the way he left it in 2003, which was under suspension.
The Flames drew thousands more to their exhibition games because No. 14 was in the lineup. People called out his name willy-nilly at a Calgary comedy club last Saturday as the American comedian did his best to keep up with what the excitement was about.
“Everybody in Calgary wants him to be on the team,” winger Craig Conroy said. “It was the buzz of the city and it’s disappointing because the reality is, coming in, there were 14 forwards under one-way contracts and it makes it tough for someone to come in and take a job.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen now for Theo, but it was fun to watch and fun to be around him.”
Fleury spent the summer working with a strength trainer and nutritionist to drop weight and get into shape. He also skated with NHL players in a local Calgary arena.
“I think the most important thing with Theo, is that it’s just not about the game. It’s where he’s at in his life right now,” Sutter said. “He’s in a good place and I’m proud of him for that.
“He’s been through a lot.”