CALGARY – The storyline seemed to good to be true – former NHL star Theo Fleury, who has battled alcohol and substance abuse throughout his career, looking for a fresh start in a new sport.
A news release from the Calgary Vipers, a minor league professional baseball team, suggested Fleury, who has Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medal from a career which included stints with the Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, was going to attempt to make the team and live a boyhood dream.
The story drummed up memories of NBA superstar, Michael Jordan, who left the Chicago Bulls and signed a minor league baseball contract for a short-lived career with the Chicago White Sox.
But the story turned out only to be a very good publicity stunt.
Fleury will be throwing out an opening pitch and at some point could be getting a chance to play for a couple of innings.
The goal, quite simply, is to get fans in the seats.
“The fans love it. He’s going to be out here Thursday night throwing the first pitch,” said an unashamed Peter Young, president of the Calgary Vipers. “The league has said any time we want to use him we can and not go against our roster.
“He’s a pro athlete and he’s not likely to make a fool of himself. It’s not like Billy Crystal standing out there who has played in a couple of celebrity games in his life. “This guy played professional sports.”
The announcement came on the same day the team announced it had traded a player to another squad for 10 baseball bats.
Fleury, wearing the Viper’s uniform with his trademark Number 14, appeared to be taking the whole hitting practice seriously although a slight paunch drummed up memories of Babe Ruth in his latter years.
But his hitting turned out not to be too bad at all. It involved underhand pitches but resulted in several line drives and good contact, although he never came close to driving the ball even to the warning track at Foothills Stadium.
Fleury, who now runs a concrete sealing business in Calgary, said he was a pretty good player when he was 14 and playing in Manitoba with the Birtle Blue Jays.
“I learned a lot in a short time what an art is it to hit a ball,” said an out-of-breath Fleury after hitting practice. “Within a matter of five minutes he had my swing picked apart and had me do what you guys saw out here.”
For Fleury, the whole experience was done for fun.
“What I do everyday now as opposed to what it was a few years ago is a hoot. Just getting out of bed every morning because I couldn’t even do that for a while,” he said.
“I look at this as an opportunity to have some fun and get out in the sun. I would love to come down here every once and a while and hang out with the guys and, who knows, if I get into a game at some point it would be a bonus,” he chuckled. “We’ll see what happens when a 90 mile per hour, Randy Johnson type gets up on the mound.”
Fleury took some good-natured ribbing from the reporters on hand and was asked if he was going to try and get a gig from the Calgary Stampeders as well.
“It all depends on whether they’re lacking attendance figures I guess,” he said to gales of laughter.