By Iain MacIntyre, Vancouver Sun columnist September 22, 2009
There is something about Theo. And all it took to feel it were a few honest minutes with him Monday at GM Place, where Fleury peeled off his jersey from the morning skate, turned to media assembled in classic U-formation and announced: "I didn't get any taller."
No, but he got smarter, and fitter and sober. And all this seems to have made him a 5-6 giant, the underdog everyone is cheering for to make the Calgary Flames, six years after drinking his way out of the National Hockey League.
"Every little moment, every second, is special," Fleury said before playing against the Vancouver Canucks. "Because I never expected to be here in my wildest dreams."
Nobody else expected it either.
One of the game's best and most dynamic players in the 1990s, Fleury had his career end prematurely and in disgrace in 2003 when the NHL suspended him indefinitely for repeated violations of its substance abuse policy.
He was 34. He had a Stanley Cup ring, an Olympic gold medal, 1,088 points in 1,084 NHL games and a season remaining on a two-year, $8.5-million-US contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. It was all over except the partying.
It's no wonder Fleury yearns now for a more dignified ending. You can debate forever whether he deserves one.
His apparent triumph over alcoholism -- the fourth anniversary of Fleury's sobriety was last Friday -- doesn't come close to explaining the unfettered affection and outpouring of support the winger from Oxbow, Sask., has received since the NHL re-instated him two weeks ago, allowing the 41-year-old to try out for his beloved Flames.
Last season, Fleury carried a trowel as often as a hockey stick, smoothing wet cement as a very hands-on owner of Fleury's Concrete in Calgary.
When he did play, it was for the Steinbach North Stars senior team in Manitoba.
His teams before that were the Belfast Giants -- yes, in Ireland -- and, in 2005, the Horse Lake Thunder of the North Peace Hockey League.
The Thunder, which brought in a handful of ex-NHL ringers, may have been the most despised team in Allan Cup history and Fleury, accused of accepting $100,000 to play in the national amateur championship, was its lightning rod.
Near the peak of his career, Fleury earned $21 million to play three seasons for the New York Rangers. Yet, when he divorced in 2003, there were only $8 million in assets to divide.
According to reports, Fleury declared for tax purposes income of $12,367 in 2004 and $10,398 in 2005. Fleury's lifestyle and spending, however, were undiminished and he admits he wasted millions on "alcohol, drugs, gambling and girls."
Still, one of the girls he met in 2005 was Jennifer Ivanochko, whom Fleury married and credits greatly for his sobriety.
He hired a personal trainer last February and checked into the Flames camp in remarkable shape for a someone his age so long removed from elite competition.
There has been speculation, of course, that Fleury needs the money. Cynics can also link his astonishing comeback attempt to the upcoming release of his autobiography, Playing With Fire, expected to be a blunt confession of his many sins.
But even at his worst, there was never much about the plain-spoken Fleury that seemed calculated or dishonest. He bears his demons and concedes his faults with the same lack of varnish as John Daly, and like the alcoholic golfer Fleury is becoming a folk hero for it.
There is also the storybook way his comeback began, with standing ovations in Calgary, a shootout winner in his first pre-season game Thursday against the New York Islanders, then a goal and assist Sunday against the Florida Panthers.
It seems at least possible that Fleury will earn a contract from the Flames, even if it means playing in the American League this season with Calgary's new farm team in Abbotsford.
"Sure, why not?" he said when asked if he'd play in the minors here. "I just want to play hockey. I don't care where it is. It doesn't matter to me. I was in Steinbach, Manitoba last year, so Abbotsford's probably a little nicer than Steinbach."
Everyone loves a good story about redemption. Fleury will sell tickets as well as books wherever he plays. If he plays.
"I love the sport," he said Monday morning. "Everything that I have in this life, I've gotten from hockey. I truly miss the game and am real excited and honored and privileged to be able to have this opportunity once again.
"Not too many people think it's realistic, but I do. And I know once I get into this frame of my mind, I've accomplished some pretty cool stuff.
"I try to get better every single day and become a better person first. Since I made that decision, my life has completely turned around. I've had so many great things that have happened the last four years."
Last week, Fleury told the Calgary Herald that "sobriety is like listening to one of those hurtin' country songs in reverse."
All the things you lost, you get back. Except time.