The Calgary Flames may have made a small mistake in the way they sent rookie center Theoren Fleury down to the Golden Eagles this fall. They told him he'd exceeded their expectations in training camp, but they were going with a veteran lineup. Calgary assistant to the president Al Coates says he and Coach Terry Crisp agreed later they should have told their 5-foot-6 sensation that he hadn't played well enough to dislodge anybody from an established position on the best team in pro hockey. They should have given him something to shoot for.
It's a small difference, but a somewhat discouraged Fleury came to Salt Lake thinking there was nothing else he could have done, and that was frustrating. He scored fairly well but wasn't really the player everyone knew he could be until about 18 games into the season. Then, he bounced back with a vengeance.Against Denver, he scored three points one night, four goals the next, then followed up against Saginaw with two more goals and soon had a 13-game scoring streak. Now, the IHL Player of the Month for November is on a six-game scoring streak and tied for the league lead in goals (25) while standing second in total points (44). He'll play with the Eagles against Denver in the Salt Palace again Saturday night.
Fleury has never been one to let little things get in his way.
"The disappointment of not making the Flames and it being my first year as a pro was a big adjustment," Fleury explains. "Once I adjusted to those things, I started to play well. I think it was just riding it out."
He is already learning to be a better two-way player - something the Flames are stressing throughout their organization after getting knocked out of the playoffs early last year. They were the best-scoring offense last year but careless defensively.
Fleury credits his own improved attention to defense - brought about by Coach Paul Baxter's urging - for helping him get his offensive game on track a month into the season.
He can also see how defense is something he needs. "I'm very skilled offensively, but I have to work on my defensive game. Once my defense is as good as my offense, I'll be in the NHL," Fleury says.
Fleury, at 155 pounds, is already a physical player, which is why a man his size can even be considered for the big leagues, much less be personally certain he'll make it.
Coates admits there was staff discussion as to whether to draft Fleury - the Flames found out later the Edmonton Oilers coveted him - but, says Coates, "A couple members of our staff thought if a small guy could play in the league, he was the guy that could do it because of the way he plays.
"He's nasty," says Coates. "He's an agitating little bugger that can draw your team together and make everybody mad at you. He has no fear of anybody."
"I was always the smallest. I've had to deal with it all my life. I was brought up as a tough little guy that wouldn't take anything from anybody," says Fleury, whose more-normal-sized father played for the Portland Buckaroos of the old Western League and earned a tryout with the New York Rangers before a broken leg sidelined his development. His size, he says, comes from his mother. "I have a lot of her characteristics.
"I was one of those kids who was always in trouble in school, fighting all the time," says Fleury, a B student who could have had As if he'd tried. "I'm the type that's not intimidated by anything, and I think that's why I'm successful."
Fleury wasn't an aggressive player as a youngster; his skills were well beyond average. He progressed so fast - his father ran the rink in Russell, Manitoba, and he played hockey all the time - that he even skipped a grade, going from bantam to junior without playing in the midget division.
It was then, at age 16 and playing against 19- and 20-year-olds, that Fleury put his natural aggression to work. "A lot of teams at the beginning of my junior career tried to run me and get me off my game. If I didn't do something back, they'd know I could be intimidated and scared, so that's the way I had to play," says Fleury, unable to recall the first time somebody hurt him or he hurt somebody back. "It happened so many times," he explains.
He says four years of punishment in juniors proved his durability, although the Flames are still somewhat concerned. "The only way we'll know that is for him to play in the NHL," says Coates, who is fairly certain Fleury will be called up sometime this season for at least a look-see. "We really look forward to the day when we see what he's all about at this level."
Baxter says Fleury's game matured over the recent 10-game road trip. "He learned to deal with adversity," Baxter said, thinking specifically of two games in which Indianapolis' Chris McSorley, known for vicious stickwork, shadowed Fleury, trying to throw him off. Fleury accepted McSorley's challenges and drew penalties in one game. In the next, said Baxter, he was disciplined.
Baxter considers Fleury a complex, charismatic youngster who's growing into a leadership role while respecting his teammates and having their respect. He's still finding out how good he can be.
Fleury says the one thing he'd like Salt Lakers to know about him is that, "Off the ice, I'm a totally different person than the way I play. I'm free for anyone that does recognize me to come up and talk to me, and I'd be willing to talk to them."
He loves children and volunteered, along with teammate Rick Hayward, to do personal appearances at children's hospital wards. Many athletes balk at that, but Fleury says, "What's a couple hours of your time?"
"He has a good heart," Baxter says.
Just don't ask him about his size - at least not if you've seen him play. If you haven't, he doesn't mind, but, "Somebody who's seen me play and knows what type of game I play, then, I get a little upset because I don't think it's a matter of my size," Fleury says. "It's just a matter of my becoming a complete player."