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Theoren Fleury winning battle with the bottle and aims for an NHL comeback

CALGARY - Having achieved sobriety, Theoren Fleury wants to play in the NHL again after a six-year absence.

The 41-year-old from Oxbow, Sask., is preparing for an NHL training camp next month. He doesn't know yet if any team will invite him for a tryout and before that even happens, Fleury needs to be reinstated by the NHL.

When he left the NHL after the 2002-03 season, the diminutive forward was under indefinite suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

"I knew I wanted to achieve sobriety at some point in my life," Fleury said Wednesday. "I knew I had a problem. I never hid that fact from anybody.

"At heart I'm a hockey player first and foremost. Obviously I didn't go out the way I wanted to."

Fleury has been sober for four years with the help of Alcoholic's Anonymous and the support of his family. He's contacted the NHL about reinstatement.

"We're working through a process. I don't know if you can say I've asked," Fleury said. "I also understand there were some consequences for my actions and this is all part of the consequences. I didn't expect an answer right away."

Fleury was considered a longshot to play in the NHL when he was drafted 166th overall by the Calgary Flames in the 1987 entry draft. At barely five-foot-six, he was thought to be too small for the rigours of the league.

He went on to score 455 goals and collect 633 assists in over 1,000 career games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. He won a Stanley Cup in his rookie season with Calgary in 1989.

Fleury had 34 goals and 38 assists in 77 playoff games. He was also a member of the Canadian team that won an Olympic gold medal in 2002.

He played with his heart on his sleeve and his tenacity made him a homecrowd favourite during his years in the league. Fleury also battled alcoholism throughout his career.

"I knew something was wrong about 15 years ago. I just didn't have the tools to be able to deal with life," Fleury explained. "I started picking up really good tools to get to a point four years ago where I knew I could stop and continue and maintain my recovery and sobriety."

A return to the NHL after a six-year absence is a tall order. Defenceman Chris Chelios may have played in the NHL at 47 last season, but he'd never left it.

Forward Claude Lemieux, 43, played 18 games with the San Jose Sharks last season after a five-year absence. He had one assist and retired again.

Fleury had 12 goals and 21 assists in 54 games with the Blackhawks in 2002-03. He's played in Europe and in North American senior leagues since then. He's operated a cement company in Calgary in recent years.

"They say absence makes the heart grow fonder right? I'm going to stick with that," Fleury said. "I have to believe in my own mind I can do this. If I didn't then it would be a waste of time.

"I think the biggest thing is that I'm healthy again. I've lost a lot of weight and eating properly and sleeping well. It's been all part of my personal growth more than anything else."

Fleury has been working out with a trainer and skates regularly with NHL players at a rink in western Calgary.

It was difficult to gauge his readiness for the NHL while watching him play summer hockey Wednesday. The players were going half-speed and shooting pucks at a female college goaltender.

"I don't think the game passes anybody by," Fleury said. "I don't know if I'm at that level or not. We'll see what happens when I'm actually competing against guys who are NHLers. Then we'll find out.

"All I know if I do get a chance, I'll go to training camp and do the best that I can and hopefully they like what they see and find somewhere I can fit."

Brent Sutter, the Flames' new head coach, stopped in briefly at Wednesday's skate and was noncommittal on what he thought Fleury's chances of a comeback were.

"It's a tough thing to do when you haven't played at that level for a long time," Sutter said. "The game has changed a lot since then too. It's certainly a quicker game today than it was.

"But I guess he's been training, from what I'm hearing, and he's been doing the right things. Whether it can happen or not, I don't know."



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