49

Theo

While there’s no cheering allowed in the press box, I’ve got to admit I was hoping Theoren Fleury would get the call today telling him he was being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. I know, tough sell here in the Edmonton Oilers backyard. That call didn’t come for the former nasty little so-and-so with the Calgary Flames, but I’ll settle for Fleury being healthy and happy and still here to be considered.

I had my doubts about that for many years — long before Fleury went public about the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of Graham James in his 2009 autobiography, Playing with Fire. Those fears were never more front-of-mind for me than after a conversation we had at Rexall Place in January of 2002 during the depths of his alcohol and drug abuse in his third season with the New York Rangers.

Try as he might to put on a brave face that morning, Theo was an unmitigated mess then. It seemed the demons born of the horrors he had endured as a player with the Moose Jaw Warriors and his boozing and drug use were getting the upper hand with his career winding down. I remember leaving the rink that morning to write a feature about Theo hoping he was going to somehow come out the other side OK but fearing he wouldn’t.

All these years later, here he is. Fleury has not only come out the other side, he’s emerged from the darkest of days to turn his life completely around. The roar of the crowd has long faded and the $50 million he made during his NHL career is gone, but Theo is clean and sober and a tireless speaker and an advocate for people struggling with sexual and substance abuse. HHOF or not, that’s the real storyline from where I sit.

THE CALL

Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the best women’s player of all time for my money, Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Zubov and Vaclav Nedomansky, the first player to defect to North America, got the call today. Pittsburgh Penguins’ GM Jim Rutherford and Boston College coach Jerry York were inducted in the builders’ category. No Fleury, again.

I’m not sure why Fleury didn’t get the nod this year, one in which there weren’t really any slam-dunks outside of Wickenheiser, but his career speaks for itself. He won the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames and earned gold medals at the 1988 World Junior Championship, 1991 Canada Cup and 2002 Olympics. That he’s in the conversation at all and is the person he is today after what he’s been through is a testament to the human spirit.

“The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” Fleury wrote in Playing with Fire after years of refusing to acknowledge he’d been abused, along with Sheldon Kennedy and another player, by James. “I no longer had faith in myself or my own judgment. And when you come down to it, that’s all a person has. Once it’s gone, how do you get it back?”

About his time in New York with his substance abuse out of control, Fleury wrote:  “I didn’t hang out on the surface with your average Joe. I would go five, six, seven, eight levels below the streets of New York and party with freaks, transvestites, strippers and all kinds of shady people.”

Two years after his career screeched to a halt with Chicago, Fleury finally hit the wall. “I was in a washroom in my house, and I knew that eventually I was going to die,” he said. “I already tried suicide, I couldn’t do that, and I knew that there was just a better way of doing this, and that’s called life.” That epiphany came on Sept. 18, 2005. He hasn’t taken a drink or used drugs since then.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Fleury’s remarkable back story and the turnaround in his life aside, I think he belongs in the HHOF based on what he accomplished on the ice. I’d have Fleury in ahead of Carbonneau and Nedomansky for sure, but that’s just me, having known the fearless little forward since he was in Moose Jaw. Fans of the Oilers hated his guts, with good reason, and he theirs.

“One thing I’ve come to realize is that, without Graham James I still would have had the same career,” Fleury said. “I look back on the way I played the game, and to be honest, there were not a lot of guys as naturally talented as I was. Add in my fierce, competitive edge and all those little intangibles—that’s what made me great. It was all part of me before I met Graham James.”

So, that call from the HHOF will have to wait, if it comes at all. “I don’t like my chances,” Fleury said in a text this morning before the latest inductees were announced. He was right, it turns out. In the big picture, it matters not. Life goes on.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • OldOilerFan

    Good article Robin. I hated the little so and so when he played. But after reading “Playing with Fire” and the subsequent TV production, … well I can say he paid his dues. Talk about a life turnaround.

  • Oilman99

    Fleury had far more impact on the game than Zubov or Nedomansky, specially after all that he went through to get to the NHL. This leaves a stench that he’s being penalized because of his addiction problems in the past, and that’s not right.

  • ed from edmonton

    When I look at the all time point list I find Glenn Anderson right next to Fluery. Anderson was know to be a guy who marched to a different drummer and that seemed to put his in the HHOF selection committee black list for years before they finally let him in. Anderson never had the off ice issues that Fleury had but whatever he was made a difference. HHOF seem to have some moral code they apply. They should let people know what it is.

    As far as I know Fleury did some self destructive things but did he harm others? I think we all know some in the HHOF that might have trouble making that claim.

    • If you’re going to look at negatives off the ice when considering HHOF inductees, you should also look at positives. Theo has overcome huge odds after being victimized by James just to be in the conversation and he’s turned his life around after making some mistakes.

      • Kevwan

        If you’re going to Canonize Theo for being a victim, shouldn’t it be pointed out that he said NOTHING when Sheldon Kennedy originally came out with the story of Graham James abuse. Only after a few years – after Theo realized there was no stigma attached to Kennedy – did Theo come out with his confirmation of Kennedy’s story.

        If someone deserves to go into the HOF it’s Sheldon Kennedy for his courage to bring the issue of abuse out in an era where it may have reflected badly on him.

        • Petey Summers

          Wow, did you really criticize the guy for making his past abuses public??? Isn’t it Theo’s undeniable God given right to make his past abuses public if he deems it appropriate???? Isn’t it Theo’s undeniable God given right to make his past abuses public when he & only he deems it appropriate???? To make such a small comment in the face of what Theo has accomplished for himself & others is beyond lowbrow. Shame.

          • Kevwan

            What’s undeniable is that Theo didn’t come forward when Sheldon Kennedy did. Of course it Theo’s right to do what he wanted but that did little to support Kennedy (who at the time needed support)

        • Nobody is canonizing Theoren for being a victim and I’d strongly suggest you tread very carefully regarding any reference you make in that regard. First, I did point it out but you apparently didn’t read what I wrote or chose to ignore it. From the item above: “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a f—ing raging, alcoholic lunatic,” Fleury wrote in Playing with Fire after years of refusing to acknowledge he’d been abused, along with Sheldon Kennedy and another player, by James.

          Second, I sat for hours with Sheldon in his apartment in Winnipeg talking about this entire horrific part of his life. I know the story and how it unfolded. As for Theo, you don’t get to tell somebody how and when they come forward about being abused whether it aligns with how you think it should have been handled or not. You have not walked in his shoes, at least I hope you haven’t. From an interview in Maclean’s magazine:

          His refusal to come clean after James was arrested in 1997 is harder to explain. It effectively made Kennedy—his friend and teammate at the time in Calgary—the public face of the scandal (a third player who was abused while James was coach of the WHL Swift Current Broncos in the late 1980s has also remained anonymous). In an exclusive interview with Maclean’s this week, Fleury says the two addressed the issue in summer of 1997, in Arizona. “I respected his decision and Sheldon respected mine,” he says. “Secretly, I think we’ve both known that we’ve always had each others’ support. Now we go to a [12-step] meeting together every week, and that’s been a gift. I think we started repairing the relationship that night in Arizona.”

          • Reg Dunlop

            If memory serves, rumors in Prince Albert had Joe Sakic billeting with Graham James. Rather an odd set-up whether or not he is the other un-named victim. Also, I think Richard Farda defected and signed with Toronto at the same time as Big Ned. As for Fleury the player, I hated that little puke. A sure sign that a former flamer belongs in the HOF.

        • Petey Summers

          The part you clearly lack understanding in is that these are two individuals that suffered seperate levels of impact from abuse. One set of circumstances have nothing to do with the other. You’re picking flychit out of the pepper in other words & defaming an individual that has gone onto do great things for those most in need, abused children. Instead, you align yourself with the smallest of criticisms in some warped attempt to lessen Theo’s contributions. Your position disgusts me but each to their own, be sure to walk proud.

          • Kevwan

            @Petey -Is Theo allowed into the United Center yet? Think of how bad a players behavior would have to be for them, as an Alumni, to not be allowed entrance into the home rink.

            Yes Theo has done some good things lately and you can blame his transgressions on his abuse. Those transgressions still happened.

            Fleury may be your hero but he does have faults. Brownlee asks
            “I’m not sure why Fleury didn’t get the nod this year.” Well there are a few reasons. If my pointing them out “disgusts” you so be it

  • Wesley41

    No way Talent wise is he not a hof player,but this seems like a popularity contest and as we know because of the crap that he went through as a kid his demons made him a polarizing person to say the least!

  • Petey Summers

    Theo Fleury is a better man off the ice than he was on the ice and that’s saying something of a player that netted 1088 points in a terrific career and, yes, he should have been in the Hall of Fame long ago.

  • Redbird62

    I fully agree the Theo should get in the hall of fame. Maybe just one more year. Carbonneau had been waiting longer, and its pretty hard to argue with his credentials. One of the best shut down centers of all-time 3 Selkes (and 9 years in the top 5 voting) and he was very decent on offense. He won 3 Stanley Cups (one as captain) and was an important contributor all 3 times. Vaclav Nedomansky was an International star, before being the first player to defect from behind the Iron Curtain to the North America in 1974 after his prime. He still was second on the Red Wings in scoring at the age of 35 in 79-80 with 74 points, so he would have damn good in his prime. Hayley is just the best women’s hockey player of all time and a trail blazer as well playing in men’s league in Finland. I personally would have picked Theo over Zubov despite Zubov getting Norris trophy votes in 12 of his 16 seasons. I enjoyed watching Theo play because he was not only extremely skilled but he played with a passion, probably in part because on the ice, he could escape his demons. Good write up Robin.

    • Petey Summers

      Not only did Captain Carbo shut down Wayne Gretzky during that 93 series, but it was Carbonneau who rightfully suggested to coach Jacques Demers that he should measure Marty McSorley’s stick; the incident proved to be a major turning point of the series. He was a great leader & a better defensive center, fully deserving of being a Hall of Famer.

      The elite defensive guys never seem to get accolades that their offensive counterparts get but are equally as important, imo.

  • crabman

    I was always a fan of him as a player. And to make the impact he did on the game as such an undersized player for the era is impressive. But how he has turned his life around off the ice and now uses that to help and educate others is what impresses me the most.
    I have had my struggles with addiction and when I was 1st trying to get clean in 2010 I was given his book as a gift from a close friend. It helped a lot reading everything he went through and still managed to turn his life around. He is an inspiration to a lot of people and I will always admire him for speaking up and making his life so public in order to help other.

    • Petey Summers

      Good job, you! There likely isn’t a person on here that hasn’t had a family member or friend affected by addiction. Kudo’s to all of those that break the cycle!

  • toprightcorner

    Fleury should have been in the HHoF a long time ago. Carbaneau did not have a hall of fame career, he was instrumental for his team, but was no different than Tikkanen.

    Fleury had the stats to be inducted, add in that he is 5’6″ and played in one of the toughest eras should be icing on the cake.

    I do y expect the NHL to do much right so I am not shocked

  • toprightcorner

    I hate the Flames, but always respected Fleury for his taken and how he played the game and that was before knowing about his horrific past.

    Him not being elected in a ‘non-superstar” year is a huge mistake

  • Serious Gord

    It’s a crime he’s not in the hall and Glenn Anderson is.

    He played far tougher first line minutes and was either the best or second best forward on most of the teams he played on during his peak. (Anderson was a second-liner his whole career)
    His game was more complete to boot.

    That he didn’t play on the glory oilers and got buckets of points in the playoffs -he played in 77 got 79 points while Anderson played in 225 and got 214.

    In the regular season theoren has higher ppg and finished just 11 points behind.

    There is no greater indictment of the clique mentality of the HHOF than Anderson being in 11 years now and Fleury still on the outside.

    • ed from edmonton

      Its too bad that you made this some kind of personal vendetta against Anderson as you made a good point. The people who control things like HOHF selections, NHL awards and all star voting are very “media center centric”. i.e. highly leveraged to the media centers of TO and NYC. Perhaps this in crowd remembers Fluery more as the struggling substance and gambling abuser from high Ranger days and discount or simply didn’t notice his years in Cowtown. You see this all the time. How is Ovy an all star when LD has 1 less goal but 16 more point? The same thing happened to Hall a few years ago when Ovy got on the all star team on both wings. But when Hall plays in NJ he wins he Hart, although McKinnon, from the hinterland of Denver, had a demonstrably better year. You really can’t take any award (other than the Lindsay that is voted by the players) too seriously.

      • ed from edmonton

        Further to this, how is nay rational sense is Guy Carbaneau more deserving than any of number of solids two way players. Someone mentioned Tikkanen as an example. Tik played about half the games a Carbaneau but has virtually the same points. When the Grate one was assigned to check the Great one, he did. Carbaneau had the good fortune to play his best years in the middle of the media center. HAd he played in the hinterland of the west, he would have been not much more than a rumour.

        • Serious Gord

          I have written on this site more than once that shutdown players – role players who don’t have flashy stat lines are horribly underrepresented.

          And that the HHOF selection process is easily the worst of the three leagues I follow – nhl/nfl/mlb and that some kind of selection process that asks the players of the era to pick players that were deserving might help correct this.

          Perhaps with the use of player tracking technology and other new analytics will help on the recognition of these kinds of players.

        • Redbird62

          Tikkanen one of the better defensive players during his career, as reflected by his being in the top 3 for Selke voting 4 times, but he never won it. Carbonneau was the best shut down center in the league for a decade, 3-Selke wins, 2 seconds, a 3rd, 2 4ths and a 5th in 10 years. He was an exceptional face off man and penalty killer, which is partly why the Canadiens were always near the top of the league in killing penalties as were the Stars when he was there. Longevity plays a part too. Logging 17 minutes per game at center behind Modano and Nieuwendyk in the playoffs at the age of 38 and 39 is very impressive. Man that team was stacked down the middle.

        • Redbird62

          Regular season yes, but Playoffs no. It is the Hall of “Fame” and getting to play well in 225 playoff games will make you more “Famous”. 5 OT winners, 19 playoff game winners and 72 regular season game winners will get you some notoriety as well. Having said that Fleury deserves to be in as well, not instead. But since Anderson was older and retired sooner, all things being equal, he would get into the Hall sooner.

  • FlamesRule

    Robin – excellent piece. Wish it was posted Nation-wide.
    ON fans – props for the class shown on an article on one of the greatest all-time Flames. First time I’ve “cheers’ed” just about every post.
    Theo should have been in years ago and the Flames .org is pathetic for not having his jersey in the rafters.

  • Serious Gord

    Nedomansky really shouldn’t be on the list. His claim to “fame” isn’t hockey but his defection – an event not a career.

    Last I checked Paul Henderson isn’t an inductee. (Nor should he be)

  • Ty Guy

    i consider the fact he was a David in a Goliath league at the time a pretty big deal….players of his stature, in his era, rarely made it let alone excelled at the NHL level. hated him, induct him

    • Rob...

      So my only problem with your statement is my memories of David vs. Goliath statement regarding Fleury, as an Oiler’s fan. I remember two things about Fleury: That one goal celebration (fine with it, just hate it at the same time) AND Fleury weaseling his way into a scrum, punching an Oiler with a gloved fist, then tucking his tail between his legs and hiding behind larger Flames players instead of ‘playing like a man’.

  • BlueHairedApe

    This story has always resonated with me and my family. My brother was invited to play for that team in the mid eighties as a fifteen year old center and my mom and dad never let him go. He was too young and it was too far away they said. I always thought that luckily there must have been some intuition at work there as well because to this day my dad says it just didn’t feel like a good thing to do at the time and he’s glad they made that decision.