For an entire generation of Flames fans – hell, even Calgarians – those four letters were and still are instantly recognizable. Hearing them brings back one specific memory, maybe two, right away. The full-ice celebration, his first 50-goal season, breaking Al MacInnis’ franchise record of 823 points, winning gold in ’02 or the shootout goal against the Islanders, depending on the person.
He was able to put together a career out of seemingly nothing, becoming one of the greatest players in franchise history. Even though he dealt with numerous personal demons throughout the course of his career, Fleury still scored at a point-per-game pace over his 1084 contests: 455 goals and 633 assists.
Most of the players on this list I didn’t see in Flames colours, either because I wasn’t alive or because I lacked the cognitive ability to remember them playing. Theo, however, was different. I went to his hockey schools, had my jerseys autographed by him, wrote a letter to Harley Hotchkiss on his behalf (or so I thought) when he was traded asking for Al Coates to be fired and continued to follow him around the league as best as an 8-year-old could.
My first Flames memory was of Jarome Iginla’s OT goal in the 95 playoffs, but my favorite Flames memories until the 04 run were mostly made up of Theo moments. Goals, celebrations, that dumb Jofa helmet – all of it made me want to grow up to be like him.
Even the earliest years of Fleury’s life weren’t without turmoil: from the moment he was born on June 29th, 1968, it was clear most of his life would be an uphill battle. His father, an excellent hockey player in his own right, suffered a leg injury in 1963 that eventually turned into an alcohol addiction. His mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, battled substance abuse and drug addiction off and on for many years. Fleury’s racial background was also a point of abuse growing up: being of Métis heritage left him open to some less than ideal treatment at the hands of children growing up.
As a result, Fleury became quite aggressive in his early years, so it made amazing sense for him to turn to hockey as an outlet. While he didn’t make a huge splash on the provincial or national scene as he moved up the ranks – mostly because of his location in small-town Russell, Manitoba – he did impress on the ice.
When he was 13 years old, Fleury suffered a laceration to his forearm that kept him from playing for almost a month, and as a bit of a boost to the kid the town raised some cash to send him to the Andy Murray hockey school in Brandon that summer. Graham James was a scout at the time, and watching Fleury he realized that Theo had immense skill, and promised him that even though he lacked size he would recruit him to play in a Major Junior league as soon as Fleury was of age.
When Fleury turned 15, he started his season with the St. James Canadians of the MJHL, a Junior A league. He scored 33 goals and 31 assists in the team’s first 22 games, completely dominating the league in the process.
Fleury was brought up to the WHL in 1984 to play for the Moose Jaw Warriors, where he continued his torrid pace – 75 points in 71 games as a 16-year-old.
Fleury was consistently one of the best players in the league throughout his entire WHL career, often being mentioned in the same breath as Joe Sakic. In his 19-year-old season, he compiled one of the most ridiculous stat lines in Dub history: 68 goals, 92 assists and 235 penalty minutes in just 65 games.
He also represented the national Junior team twice as a member of the Warriors, once in 1987 (where he played a key role in the game that eventually came to be known as the Punch-Up in Piestany) and also in 1988, where he captained the team to the gold medal.
Fleury was drafted in the 8th round by the Flames, likely without any expectation that he would make it to the show. However, Fleury surprised many scoring 23 points in just 10 games with the Flames’ IHL affiliate, Salt Lake. Understandably, expectations were quite high for Theo when he arrived in Calgary for the team’s 1988 training camp, but he disappointed many showing up 10 kilos overweight. From there he was assigned back to the IHL, where he led the league in scoring after 40 games with 37 goals and 37 assists.
The Flames recalled him on New Year’s Day, 1989, and from that point on Fleury was a consistent fixture in the Flames lineup.
Upon arriving in Calgary, the Flames were mired in quite the slump, and as a result Fleury got to see some prime minutes right out of the gate. He took advantage of those minutes, as he would finish the regular season with 34 points in 36 games at the NHL level. He would further tally 11 points in the playoffs and the team would win the Stanley Cup at the Montreal Forum – the only non-Canadiens team to clinch on Forum ice.
The next few years were replete with scoring: 31/35/80, 51/53/79, 30/40/80, 34/66/83, 40/45/83. Fleury made the NHL All-Star game 3 times before the lockout of 1995, and with the departures and retirements of many Flames stars due to trades, contractual issues or simply age, Fleury was left as the only true star in Flames silks. He would score his 500th point that shortened season.
Prior to 1995-1996 Fleury was without a contract. He held out briefly until signing a 5-year, $12 million dollar deal, which at the time was even amazingly below market value, paying him just $2.4 million per year.
The next few seasons were a struggle for both Fleury and the Flames, as the lack of talent surrounding him (as a result of the reduced financial viability of the franchise) made it extremely difficult for him to garner points at his previous rates. He was still recognized by the greater community at large, though, earning a spot on the 1998 Olympic team.
By the next season, it became apparent the Flames were going to struggle to find the cash a player of Fleury’s calibre required. Having already taken one sweetheart deal to help the Flames out, he refused a 4-year, $16 million dollar offer (Fleury’s minimum demands were for a contract 5/25) and as a result the Flames opted to trade him to the Colorado Avalanche for two guys that sucked and Robyn Regehr (who would be in a car accident that summer, completely destroying his knees). The Flames were only two points out of a playoff spot at the time and likely would have reached the post season had a new contract been signed.
Colorado, New York and Chicago
Fleury would play his first game for the Avs in Denver the day after he was traded. Stepping onto the ice for the first time, he was bombarded by chants of “Theo, Theo, Theo” like he was in Calgary.
Fleury played only 33 games for the Avalanche, as he became a free agent and signed a 3-year, $21 million dollar contract with the Rangers in the summer. Life on and off the ice was hard for Fleury in New York, as he scored only 15 goals in his first season with the Blueshirts. He later stated that living in New York was likely one of the worst things possible for him at the time: he was having marital issues and was dealing with addiction to multiple substances.
In fact, Fleury would enter an NHL-sanctioned program for substance and emotional distress over the summer, and while it helped him briefly, it did not result in any major long-term change.
However, Fleury returned to action and was leading the Rangers in scoring with 74 points in 62 games during the 2000-2001 season until a night that he would later describe as one of the worst of his life – after a loss at MSG, Fleury went to a Brooklyn strip club where he spent more than $100,000 on lap dances, alcohol, cocaine and a trip to the roulette table at a casino. He would end up in a bathroom that night with a gun in his mouth, but did not pull the trigger. When he didn’t show up for practice the next day, Glen Sather called the missing persons department of the NYPD. Fleury was passed out in the bathtub when the officers found him, and as a result Fleury’s season ended with another mandatory entrance into the league’s substance abuse program.
Despite that, Fleury got a chance to play for Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, winning gold for Canada for the first time in 50 years. Upon returning to the Rangers in March, he continued to play well, but as a result of his substance abuse issues was not resigned by the Rangers.
The Chicago Blackhawks did offer him a two-year, $8.5 million dollar contract, which Fleury accepted but two days before the opening of the 02/03 season he tested positive again for narcotics and was suspended by the league for violating the terms of the substance abuse program. Fleury would only play 54 games for the Blackhawks and saw his stock as a hockey player drop considerably after he cleared waivers in March of 2003. Fleury tested positive once more and was given an indefinite suspension by the NHL, causing him to miss the last year of his contract.
Without an NHL deal, Fleury bounced around multiple professional teams in Alberta, the United Kingdom and Europe. The lockout of 2005 made it impossible for teams to sign him that summer, and for all intents and purposes, that combined with his ongoing indefinite suspension by the league spelled the end of his career.
Fleury would return to Calgary in the mid-2000s, where he engaged in a number of ventures: starting a concrete business, playing with the Calgary Vipers, investing in multiple restaurants, starting a clothing line, writing a biography/autobiography and competing in Battle of the Blades.
However, one thing always weighed on Fleury: not finishing his career as a Flame. As such, he attempted a comeback with the Flames for their 30th season in 2009-2010. Even though he didn’t make the team, he did score 4 points in 4 games and gave us this:
After he was cut from the team, he held a press conference announcing his retirement at the Saddledome, stating:
I get to retire a Calgary Flame. I HAD to retire a Calgary Flame. It’s been a long journey. It’s time to put down some roots, and there’s no better place than here.
The fact that he went through what he did with substance abuse, alcoholism and being sexually abused by Graham James and is still alive is amazing. I don’t know what it’s like to be used in a way like that, and I probably can’t even begin to fathom how it weighed on Fleury as he kept it a secret; and as a result the fallout from the abuse is understandable in my eyes. I’m not forgiving him or absolving him of all responsibility, but certainly a substantial amount.
Self-medication is a terrible thing, and something that generally only ends in failure when something of that magnitude is the cause of grief. For Fleury to go through all that he did and now live as normal a life as possible is amazing to me.
He’s one of the greatest Flames of all time, has been and will continue to be looked upon as an advocate against sexual abuse and has figured his life – and hopefully, most of his pain – out. I’m proud of him, and even though the magnitude of his triumphs far outweighs the accolades he’s received, I still believe he deserves to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame and have his number retired – but more importantly, he story should just be known.
Flames top-10 picks of all time
- 1 – Theoren Fleury
- 2 – Brett Hull
- 3 – Al MacInnis
- 4 – Joe Nieuwendyk
- 5 – Gary Suter
- 6 – Gary Roberts
- 7 – Hakan Loob
- 8 – Mike Vernon
- 9 – Dion Phaneuf
- 10 – Sergei Makarov