Growing up on the mean streets of Whitehorse’s Hillcrest subdivision, one of my favourite post-dinner, pre-bedtime activities was “taking shots”.
Stephen Doyle and I would place a ratty, old hockey net in the middle of Park Lane (the same street where Ron McLean lived) and take turns firing a flattened pop can at each other. Like most kids, we pretended to be our favourite players. He was Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford; I was Calgary’s diminutive all-star Theoren Fleury.
We were so attached to these players that in a fit of childhood initiative we sat down and wrote to them, asking for autographed pictures. Steve got a form letter from Ranford; I waited and waited.
At the end of the season — just as taking shots started to involve a soccer ball — I received a photo, signed: To Peter, All my best! Your Pal, Theoren Fleury.
Fleury 1, Ranford 0.
In retrospect, we know that as he scrawled that signature for me he was dealing with the aftermath of pedophilic abuse — feeding his demons with alcohol and cocaine addictions. It’s remarkable that he found the inclination to write to a wide-eyed 11 year-old.
There are a lot of remarkable things on Theoren Fleury’s resume. In 1987-88 he tied Joe Sakic for the WHL scoring title with 160 points and followed that with a gold medal at the World Junior Championships. In 1988-89, his rookie season with the Flames, he won the Stanley Cup. In 1991 he won the Canada Cup and in 2002 he struck Olympic gold. He led the Flames in scoring seven times and played in seven All-Star games. He also held the Flames’ franchise record of 830 points until Jarome Iginla passed him a few years ago.
On November 12, his old buddy Joe Sakic was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Fleury deserves to join him.
Based on math alone, he is more than qualified:
In 2005, Cam Neely was inducted into the Hall of Fame after a career that spanned 726 games and 694 points, less than one point-per-game. Similarly, Fleury’s old teammate Joe Nieuwendyk made the Hall in 2011 with 1,126 points in 1,257 games.
By contrast, Fleury hung up his skates with 1,088 points in 1,084 games, besting the point-per-game benchmark. Fleury also had two 100-point seasons; Neely and Nieuwendyk combined for zero.
Furthermore, at only 5’ 6” and 160 lbs, Fleury was considered a long shot to make The Show. Before Fleury tied “Burnaby Joe” for the WHL scoring title, Sakic was selected 15th overall in the 1987 NHL entry draft, while the Flames, in their wisdom, finally took Fleury with the 166th overall pick.
Here is a man who had “underdog” stamped on his forehead and went on to achieve at the elite level of his sport, despite living through staggering personal darkness. He’s earned reverence.
So what kind of character is the Hockey Hall of Fame made of? Is it an organization that throws its wounded warriors under a bus, or does it commend mind-boggling determination in the face of incredible odds?
Fleury deserves the Hall of Fame; but does the Hall of Fame deserve him?