Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Theoren Fleury comes full circle

There’s a little déjà vu happening in Alberta these days. However, Mike Comrie’s return to the Edmonton Oilers doesn’t have quite the pizzazz of Theoren Fleury’s resurrection with the Calgary Flames.

It was a crazy idea, but in cold Hartney, Manitoba in November, Fleury played his first game for a long while and felt really good about it.

“My mind was clear. I’m really having fun. That wasn’t the case when I was in Chicago the last year. The last place I wanted to be was at the rink. Back playing senior hockey in Manitoba, it was like one of those days when I was a kid in Russell.”

It’s been six years since he played in the NHL. Six years since he was suspended indefinitely for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It didn’t ever look like he would make it back.

In fact, Fleury’s life got so low that just being alive at this point is a miracle. Alcoholism and erratic behavior painted his legacy at the end of his 13 seasons. He bounced around senior leagues and ended up in Albuquerque, where, in baring his soul to a group of business people last year, he said he had gone to die. He spiraled downward to a point of no return. A chance telephone call saved his life, and from there, it was a long, hard struggle to find his way back.

In that journey, we saw him invest in a concrete company and even try out for the Calgary Vipers of the Golden Baseball League. So when the news hit that he was reinstated by the NHL and was to get a walk-on tryout with the Calgary Flames, many wondered if this was another one of those Theo-moments. It was pretty obvious from the first day that he was dead serious.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could do this. I went through my process and there was one thing left to accomplish before I could truly say goodbye to the game that’s giving me everything that I have. I didn’t get to go out the way that I wanted to. I’ll take full responsibility for that. For the first time in my life, I faced some real consequences for my actions. If I didn’t try to do this, I think I would have regretted it. It’s important for me, my soul, my sanity to try to accomplish this.”

Fleury’s NHL career began in Calgary – where he was drafted in the final round, 166th overall in his second year of eligibility. He was traded to Colorado, then played out the rest of his career in New York (Rangers) and Chicago. He scored 455 goals and 633 assists in 1,000+ games.

He’s 41 and with Brent Sutter as the Flames’ new coach, it’s an unlikely scenario. But Fleury was encouraged by his testing results. He hired a team of trainers to get him game-ready, and it has appeared to have paid off – at least to get him through to the next stage.

Then he had his moment: an exhibition game at home against the Islanders. The fans chanted his name and it became one of those Hollywood moments. The game goes into a shootout, Fleury gets the nod – and scores. It’s the only shootout goal and he cements the W for his team. It’s crazy.

“I was surprised when I got the puck, I had jump. I was able to get a couple chances (in the game). The way my life has gone, it doesn’t surprise me it went to a shootout and I was able to get the chance to put it in.”

He notices the league is more technical today, but he’s still hopeful he can work his way to another game.

“There’s a blank sheet of ice out there right now. Every day and every period, there’s a different story that gets written. Hopefully, I still belong, and I can still take up space and be a contributing member. I don’t know, maybe I could be the first shootout specialist in the NHL.”

In five pre-season games, the Flames are 2-3. Theoren Fleury was a factor in both wins. In his second game against Florida on Sunday, he posted a goal and an assist. The assist was on the game-winning goal. He scored an assist in the loss against Vancouver on Monday, September 21, 2009.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Canadian National Men's and Sledge Teams Share More Than Saddledome Ice

Hopefuls for the Canadian National Men’s Hockey Team, including Martin Brodeur and Jordan Staal, watched with intensity and admiration as 18 men in custom-built sleds propelled themselves at lightening speed across the ice, firing 100-mile-an-hour slap shots at the net. For the Canadian National Sledge Hockey Team, it was business as usual, except for the luxury of practicing on Pengrowth Saddledome ice.

Along with the Canadian National Women’s Team, the sledge players had the opportunity to share the building with the men’s team orientation camp and the 200 or so media that were there to cover it.
Jean Labonte, who is 40, was named the sledge team captain for the third year.

“Just the fact of being here with the women’s team and the men, it’s an amazing week,” exclaimed Labonté, “and we’re learning a lot. At the same time, our sport gets a lot more media attention. In the long run, we want to build the sport and for that, we need more coverage and visibility.”

While sledge hockey was introduced to Canada in 1982 and debuted at the Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, Hockey Canada brought it under its umbrella in 2004. Canada is also the defending Paralympic champion – having won gold in Torino, Italy in 2006.

Labonté says the difference has been night and day for the sport. “The level of professionalism around the team has increased a lot. It motivates me to be more ready, to be more fit, to work a lot more. Being with Hockey Canada has brought us that same winning attitude, not overconfidence. Coming to the rink, as simple as well-dressed, ready for a game, game face on – we’re coming here to win.”

While sledge hockey is growing, currently three teams seem to split the top three finishes: Canada, United States, and Norway. The national team isn’t centralized, so players gather from across the country to meet as a team about once a month.

Canada has won every tournament since 2006, except in last year’s Worlds, where it finished third. If there is danger of becoming complacent from the team’s continued success, Labonté said the bronze-place finish was a good wake-up call.

“It sends a message to us that you can’t just expect to win. We have great talent on our team, but we need to put in the work ethic, and we need to be ready for every game, every minute, every shift. Without that, other teams can beat us.”

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the men’s team coach Mike Babcock came into the sledge team dressing room to talk to the players before their practice with a powerful message about how easy it could be to become unworried when a team always wins.

Having access to the best Canadian National Hockey League players just across the hall, Labonté admits it has been a great experience. “It’s two different games, but it’s the same passion. It’s the same will to win. I guess maybe both teams are in awe. We’re in awe because these are the players we watch all year long. They’re close to us now and we can watch their practices. For them, they’re new to our sport. They’re discovering it.”

In 2010 in Vancouver, for the first time in Paralympic history, sledge hockey will be televised throughout the Paralympic Winter Games on CTV, TSN or Rogers Sportsnet.

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