What ‘If’

What if Theo Fleury hadn’t gone through all his struggles off the ice due to alcohol and substance abuse stemming from being sexually abused as a teenager by junior hockey coach Graham James?

Prior to leaving Calgary, the very skilled and tough Fleury was on track for the Hall Of Fame. An astonishing player due to his smallish frame and electrifying speed, talent and edge, Fleury was one of the game’s most exciting stars.

Who doesn’t remember his overtime winner against Alberta rival Edmonton in Game Six of a great series and doing an awesome sliding celebration on Oilers ice? Theo was so much fun to watch unless he was burning the team you rooted for. Even though they didn’t meet frequently due to playing in different conferences, the Rangers struggled with the Flames. Especially at The Saddledome. Fleury frequently took them apart.

The thing I admired about him was his high IQ. This wasn’t a one dimensional player. He could be trusted to kill penalties and score back breaking shorthanded goals. It’s amazing what he was able to do for being basically 5-6 and a water bug, who never backed down from anyone.

I still believe Fleury would’ve been better off staying home with Calgary. Unfortunately with unrestricted free agency coming up in the summer of ’99, they couldn’t afford him. So he was traded to Colorado in a deal that netted the Flames solid defenseman Robyn Regehr. He actually helped them reach their first Stanley Cup Final in ’04 since a younger Fleury was part of their only Stanley Cup Championship team as a rookie in ’88-89.

Fleury was a good rental for the Avalanche. However, they didn’t keep him. Maybe that should’ve been a warning sign to then Rangers GM Neil Smith. Instead, he signed the dynamic Fleury to a nice contract in hopes the talented star right wing could bring more excitement to a franchise that had seen better days.

By then, Wayne Gretzky had retired having played his final game on Broadway in a overtime loss at home to the Penguins. It was a great final swan song for number 99, who picked up one final assist. But Jaromir Jagr ended it with a highlight reel goal in overtime. I can still see him warding off defenders while ripping that laser of a wrist shot in. Gretzky took a final victory lap and the MSG crowd gave him a great send off.

If only Smith had heeded New York Post columnist Larry Brooks’ one good suggestion and acquired Fleury sooner to play with the Great One. Maybe he would’ve stuck around another year. But by retiring, it seemed fitting. Number 99 hung it up in ’99. Did he party like it’s 1999?

All this time later, it’s easier to reflect back on that wild and crazy period. While Gretzky concluded his monumental career with one final assist on a Brian Leetch goal in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Penguins on April 18, 1999, Fleury would sign with the Blueshirts that summer. The contract was for three years and $21 million guaranteed for the then 31-year old superstar right wing with a club option.

AP Photo via NY Post Getty Images

Unfortunately, the New York City nightlife was the worst thing for Fleury, who had long battled anxiety and depression due to being sexually abused by monster Graham James as a 14-year old boy. The way he coped was by drinking and doing drugs. All of it was revealed in its entirety in his 2009 book, “Playing With Fire.” A refreshing tell all that described so much in detail that it was stunning.

This was a troubled player who hung with the wrong crowd in the city that never sleeps. From drug dealers to addicts to homeless in obscure places. He did the same in his last NHL stop with Chicago. Having read the book a few times and having been lucky enough to meet Fleury at a book signing in ’09 which included a memorable chat and family photo, I have so much respect for the man. He overcame his addiction and survived nearly ending his life when he was at rock bottom.

I’m glad he lived and turned his life around. I can still recall some crazy moments from his three years as a Ranger that never made any sense. That included flipping the bird to our fans at a home game we attended. Beating up the San Jose Sharks mascot. Doing the chicken dance following a brawl with the Islanders that featured Sandy McCarthy. Even leaving the rink in Pittsburgh for the team bus following a game misconduct. Holy moly.

And yet following a disappointing first season, he was leading the NHL in scoring at one point. That included a ridiculous seven shorthanded goals to go with 74 points in 62 games before checking himself into a league mandated substance abuse program. It sure helped explain all the craziness.

In his final year on Broadway, he racked up 216 penalty minutes to rank in the top five with a list of enforcers. He was out of his mind. Somehow, Fleury managed to play in all 82 games while tallying 63 points (24-39-63) to rank second in team scoring behind Eric Lindros, whose 73 points in 72 games proved he still had it following a blockbuster trade with the Flyers. But the success of the FLY Line that also featured Mike York, faded following Lindros getting his bell rung in a season turning loss at San Jose. Another concussion for the Big E along with an injury to captain Mark Messier turned the team from challenging for first place in the old Atlantic Division to missing the postseason again. Even the addition of Pavel Bure wasn’t enough. He scored 12 goals in 12 games with 20 points while mostly teamed with Lindros.

At 34, Fleury wound up playing his final NHL season with the Blackhawks. Another struggling Original Six franchise that was too big for his off ice issues. I can remember reading him describe hanging out with some shady people at a drug den. They thought he was cool. It’s hard to fathom.

In an anticlimactic season that saw him placed on waivers due to more issues stemming from his substance abuse, he finished with 12 goals and 21 assists for 33 points with 77 penalty minutes in 54 games. After violating the league substance abuse policy, he was suspended again leading to the end of his NHL career.

A 15-year career that once included helping his hometown team win their only Cup as a rookie while becoming the franchise leader in points before Jarome Iginla surpassed him, ended abruptly. Twice, the pint sized Fleury reached the century mark in points while posting eight seasons of 30 goals or more. The first seven coming with Calgary before getting 30 with the Rangers in ’00-01. While there, he registered career point number 1,000. The club presented him with a silver stick to commemorate the honor.

Despite how it ended, he wound up over a point-per-game with 1,088 points in 1,084 NHL games. That included 455 goals with 633 assists along with 1,840 penalty minutes. He was a seven-time All-Star who won a Cup and an Olympic gold medal representing Canada including the memorable ’02 Winter Games in Salt Lake City when they broke their drought by defeating Team USA. I can still remember watching it in my old apartment in Bristol, Connecticut while working for ESPN. It was so exciting. That game also happened to be Mike Richter’s last hurrah. My favorite Rangers goalie.

After having success playing in Ireland, Fleury made one final comeback attempt in Calgary Flames training camp during ’09. He was cleared by the NHL in September. The biggest highlight came in his return in Flames jersey when he scored the shootout winner against the Islanders. Over 20 years later after winning a championship, he proved that he still had it. The overwhelming crowd reaction at The Saddledome says it all.

What a pretty move. Even though he finished with four points in four preseason games, that was finally it for Fleury. Even though he was released from his pro tryout, he was forever thankful. It allowed him to go out on his terms the right way. On Sept. 28, 2009, he retired from hockey as a Calgary Flame. The way it should’ve been. He really should’ve spent his entire career there. But the economics prevented it.

His autobiography remains a best seller. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves hockey and has gone through personal struggles. As someone who battles anxiety and depression, I really came to appreciate Fleury’s courageous story. He made a lot of mistakes, but no one knew what happened to him. I’m glad he took Graham James to court. He pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of Fleury, teammate Sheldon Kennedy and cousin Todd Holt. Somehow, the monster got a ridiculously light sentence of two years. It became five. Some justice system.

Since then, Fleury has become a motivational speaker and helped so many who struggle with mental illness. He also published another book and even became a country singer.

At 51, the underdog who the Flames took in the eighth round 166th overall in the ’87 NHL Draft, has been away from hockey for quite some time. I know the chances of him getting into the Hockey Hall of Fame are slim due to what happened off the ice. However, he was very successful on it becoming a star player who not only produced, but was tough as nails despite his small stature.

Nobody had more heart. If only we knew the gross nature of what he overcame. I know this. He would’ve been a lock for 500 and possibly 600 goals. You’re probably talking in the neighborhood of 1,300 points. He doesn’t need to be inducted to be remembered.

There are plenty of former players who remain out of the Hall of Fame. That includes Jeremy Roenick, Steve Larmer, Alex Mogilny, Doug Wilson and Curtis Joseph. Of those mentioned, I believe Mogilny will get the call real soon. I’m not sure about the rest sadly. That’s the usual politics with any Hall of Fame committee. See baseball.

I know Pavel Datsyuk will make it eventually once he retires. He’s still playing back home in Russia. He remains one of my favorite centers ever due to how complete he was. Kind of like former Red Wing teammate Sergei Fedorov. Patrice Bergeron is the embodiment of that now. The best player from the famed 2003 Draft class.

I’ll never say I enjoyed all of Fleury’s antics. However, few players played with as much passion as him. His over the top goal celebrations were the stuff of legend. Even if it probably drove Don Cherry nuts. I loved how hard he played the game. Imagine that kind of player in today’s wussified sport. It’s very different. Think Brad Marchand but more skilled and crazier. That’s how I describe Fleury.

You don’t have the rowdy games too often between rivals where all hell breaks loose. Even the recent Rangers win over the Islanders two weeks ago that featured a pair of fights and more rough stuff, seems tame by comparison. You don’t see too many line brawls anymore. However, a clean hit can now cause commotion. It’s just how it is.

Everything is magnified and over analyzed. I hate the instigator. But it’s never going away. Neither is fighting despite the whining we see from hypocritical media who once loved it. I’m not talking about staged fights. But ones that are necessary to defend the honor of fallen teammates when liberties are taken.

Imagine what would’ve happened to Gretzky or Lemieux without tough guys. Ditto for Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid today. You still gotta protect your stars. You can’t have Tom Wilson delivering cheap shots injuring people and then not being held accountable. Even if I respect his overall game, he pushes the envelope a lot more than Marchand, who’s crapped on due to his weird behavior of the past. Eerily reminiscent of Sean Avery, who is a special kinda crazy.

The current game can still be enjoyable due to the elite skill. When they’re not calling everything, it’s better. However, the shootout has to go. Continuous three-on-three overtime until there’s a winner makes sense. Or just go back to ties. The point system that rewards loser points is so artificially induced that there needs to be an asterisk next to team statistics and goalie ones when they get credit for victories via the shootout.

They’re never going to overhaul the system. It will never become like soccer. It is exactly like the lack of leadership that’s allowed some of the game’s brightest stars like Ovechkin to skip the lame All-Star Game. So much for promoting the sport when guys will come up with any excuse to not partake. The three-on-three tournament format is an abomination. Forward thinking by commissioner Gary Bettman. The same genius who thinks participation in the Olympics is a total waste.

Oh well. This is what you get from a league where there are way too many gaps in the 82-game schedule. The Rangers don’t play until Friday. Why? Bye weeks are for losers. This isn’t the NFL.

They could easily play 82 over five months and start the playoffs sooner. That would be better than going head to head with the NBA, who wised up and moved up the start of their season.

Condolences go out to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the other seven victims. A very sad tragedy. What’s very alarming is how awful several media outlets are. They don’t care about being right when it comes to such awful tragedies. Only about being first. It’s unprofessional and completely disrespectful. Imagine how the families feel.

Sometimes, today’s world of advanced technology and social media sucks. The worst aspect is the helicopter crash could’ve been avoided if they didn’t fly in poor conditions due to the fog. This is a case of history repeating itself. I wish such tragedies didn’t exist. Prayers go out to the victims and each family.

The eerie part is it happened after LeBron James passed Bryant for third all-time on the NBA scoring list in his hometown of Philadelphia. Last side note on Kobe. I can remember being at the ’96 NBA Draft at the old Meadowlands sitting all the way up in Continental Airlines Arena. I went with my brother and our friend. I saved the Draft poster. It’s hard to believe and will continue to be for a while.

It’s worth noting that Wayne Gretzky turned 59 on Sunday too. The game’s Great One was an afterthought due to the tragedy. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t played in 21 years. We were at his final game. Jaromir Jagr won it in overtime for the Pens by using his strength to carry a defender and beat Richter. Nothing stopped Jagr back then. Not even a bad groin that playoffs. Go ask Devils fans. His performance in Games Six and Seven were heroic.

If you’re looking for a good write-up on the 20th Anniversary of the ’99-00 Stanley Cup Champion Devils, see Hasan’s excellent piece yesterday.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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