CALGARY – The stars of the Calgary Flames walked through the Pengrowth Saddledome doors for the first day of training camp Saturday, yet it was a short forward with lines around his eyes who was the centre of attention.
Theoren Fleury reported to his first NHL training camp in seven years Saturday. The 41-year-old from Oxbow, Sask., is attempting a return to the league with the Calgary Flames, who offered him a tryout.
Fleury started his NHL career with the Flames. He played 11 seasons there and won a Stanley Cup in 1989.
“I’ve done 14 fitness tests with the Calgary Flames and this is the best one I’ve done,” Fleury declared after his fitness testing.
A comeback story is hard to resist and Fleury’s is movie material.
Barely five-foot-six, Fleury has always struck emotional chord with hockey fans. He carved out a successful career despite his diminutive proportions and his battle with alcoholism. He played on the edge and occasionally went over it.
Having convinced the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association he’s winning his battle with the bottle, Fleury faces long odds in trying to return to the NHL after a six-year absence.
He once thought those odds insurmountable, but no longer.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams four years ago I’d be standing here talking to you about putting on the skates again,” Fleury told reporters. “It’s a miracle.
“If I can get here, I think I can get a little further than just today.”
Fleury’s last season was with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2002-03 when he was suspended indefinitely for violating the NHL’s substance abuse program.
“I have to earn everything again and I’m OK with that,” Fleury said. “I’m here to try and make a really good team that has a really good chance to do some good stuff this year.”
Fleury’s roots in Calgary are deep as he’s lived in the city for years and operated a concrete company there. He says he’s sold his shares in the business to his brothers and that his return to the NHL is not for financial reasons.
“This isn’t a money issue. This is way more than a money issue,” Fleury said. “I look at it as an opportunity to inspire a whole bunch of people that have the same disease and issues as I have.”
Several Flames skated with him during the summer at a local arena on the west side of Calgary. They say Fleury has retained his skill, but his speed and timing are the questions that will be answered starting Sunday when all 57 players at camp hit the ice.
“His skill has never left him,” defenceman Robyn Regehr said. “It might be a bit rusty because he hasn’t played at the level of that he’s going to be used to at this camp and exhibition games.
“He’s going to have to try to keep up with the guys. Not just the young guys but the older guys and everyone is in very good shape at the camp. That’s going to be something that’s pretty tough.”
Calgary’s first pre-season game is Tuesday against Edmonton. New Flames head coach Brent Sutter would not say whether Fleury would be in the lineup or not.
“Theo has worked hard to put himself in this position and the organization has given him the opportunity to see where it goes,” Sutter said. “We’ll take it day to day.”
Flames winger Craig Conroy hopes Fleury plays Tuesday.
“This place will be going wild,” he declared.
Fleury scored 455 goals and collect 633 assists in over 1,000 career games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks.
Fleury had 34 goals and 38 assists in 77 playoff games and spoke to reporters Saturday while standing in front of a photo of his Stanley Cup team of 1989. He was also a member of the Canadian team that won an Olympic gold medal in 2002.
There’s been a lockout and a new collective bargaining agreement since Fleury last played an NHL game.
“Everyone tells me the game is better. I want to know for a fact that it is,” Fleury said. “Hopefully I still belong.”
Conroy expects Fleury may take a few penalties because he’ll be accustomed to the NHL’s style of play six years ago when there was more tolerance for stickwork.
“He’s going to want to hook a little bit,” Conroy explained. “He’s going to want to grab ahold of someone as they go by and that’s going to be the one hard thing for him to not want to get a stick on some somebody.
“If a guy’s got a step on you, you’ve got to skate and catch up.”
Fleury says he’s ‘”in the ball park” of his playing weight, which was 182 pounds his last season with Chicago. In addition to skating and consulting with a nutritionist, he’s worked with a conditioning trainer five days a week, a strength trainer three days a week and practised Pilates three days a week.
“I looked as it an investment as to what I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “There’s a lot more I want to accomplish before I say goodbye to the game that has given me everything I have.”