The smallest player in the NHL, 5'6", 160-pound right wing Theoren Fleury of the Calgary Flames, might be the most obnoxious one too. Unable to find anyone his own size, Fleury picks on players 30 to 50 pounds heavier and half a foot taller. He slashes at their calves, digs his elbows into their ribs and snarls insults, both generic and personal, at their psyches. And as agitated opponents exhaust themselves chasing him, Fleury adds the ultimate insult: He streaks off to score or set up a goal. When you spend your life defying attitudes, you develop one yourself.
In sum, Fleury is not only intolerable, he's also talented. Last season he scored 31 goals despite being used mainly as a third-or fourth-line player. Now he usually plays on Calgary's No. 2 line, with heady center Doug Gilmour and speedy left wing Paul Ranheim, which forms a potent scoring unit. And Fleury's stats show it. Through Sunday he had 13 goals and 16 assists for the Flames, who were second in the Smythe Division. Fleury, 22, has speed as searing as his ambition, a nice touch around the net, playmaking ability and a low center of gravity, which makes it difficult to bump him off the puck.
A tolerance for contact? He thrives on it. He missed only three games in his four junior seasons with the Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) Warriors and only two since joining the Flames on Jan. 1, 1989. "Sometimes when a big guy hits me," Fleury says, "I'm surprised that I get back up. I think I bounce off because I keep my body tense."
Fleury keeps the guys on the other team tense too. "He's a jerk," says Edmonton Oiler defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, who is 6'4", 215. "He gets under your skin. He's mouthy. He's trying to get you off your game." Last year, when Fleury was slow to allow Beukeboom to climb out of a pileup, Beukeboom took off a glove and punched Fleury in the face. "I didn't have to do that, but it was too good of an opportunity to miss," Beukeboom said, not at all embarrassed about the difference in weight class.
December 10, 1990
Not that Fleury was discouraged. Fleury is never discouraged. The Flames and the Los Angeles Kings were ready to begin the second overtime in Game 6 of their Smythe Division semifinal playoffs last spring when Doug Risebrough—then Calgary's assistant general manager and now its coach—commended Fleury for his repeated body checks of 6'4", 225-pound defenseman Larry Robinson. "Keep it up," said Risebrough. "He's 38 years old. Let's try to wear him down."
"Yeah," said Fleury eagerly. "Next time I hit him, I'm going to kill him."
Fleury thinks big, plays big and has sometimes talked so big that even his teammates have been angered. After the Flames were upset by the Kings, he and several Calgary teammates went to Bern, Switzerland, to play in the world championships. When Sergei Makarov, one of those teammates, helped key the Soviet Union's 7-1 rout of Canada, Fleury ripped into Makarov. "Why didn't you play this well for the Flames in the playoffs?" he asked. "We'd still be playing."
Makarov was stunned.
"Aw, I didn't mean anything by it," says Fleury now. "He's a good guy. He's still my roommate."
Fleury is learning such diplomacy at the same time that he's learning the defensive aspects of the game. As a kid who always had the puck in junior hockey, he still has trouble playing without it. When big wingers come out of the corners and drive toward the net, Fleury obviously is not an ideal obstacle. Sometimes, however, the best defense is a good offense, and taking the puck from Fleury is a huge task.
Taking him seriously, at least at first glance, is just as difficult. "When I first saw Theo, I thought of him as a small, skilled forward," says Risebrough. "Now I just see a skilled forward."
"At that size, with those thick glasses," says Flame defenseman Gary Suter, "I thought he should be at the library studying for a test." Fact is, Fleury spent his first professional training camp, in 1987, outperforming established players on the Flames. He forced Calgary to consider him to be a legitimate prospect, even though the Flames had drafted him in the eighth round because they thought of him only as a gate attraction for their new farm team in Salt Lake City. The scouts refused to take him seriously despite his scoring 397 points in his final three seasons in Moose Jaw. It takes exceptional skills, plus extraordinary faith from the organization drafting him, for a small player to be chosen high in the draft.
Gifted little players have always found a place in the league. According to the NHL, the most diminutive player to have lasted any appreciable length of time was the 5'1", 145-pound Harry Darragh, who played 314 games for four teams from 1925 to '33. Aurel Joliat (5'6", 136) and Henri Richard (5'7", 160) of the Montreal Canadiens were good enough to become members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bobby Lalonde (5'5", 155), who played for four teams from 1971 to '82, survived in an era when the success of the Big Bad Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies compelled clubs to bulk up in self-defense.
Since the 1971-72 season, the average size of an NHL player has increased from 5'11", 184 pounds to 6 feet, 194. But the size of the standard North American hockey rink, 200 by 85 feet, has remained the same since the game was brought indoors at the turn of the century. Most of the big guys can now do a lot more than just punch, so the issue here isn't so much goonery as it is the fact that players take up more space and run into each other more frequently. And with less open ice, play along the boards and in front of the net becomes more critical. So does the injury factor. The consequences of a 170-pound body colliding with one weighing 200 are predictable. Moreover, the playoff schedule—the two teams that make the Stanley Cup finals will have played a game every other night for seven weeks-rewards the most durable club, not always the most talented one.
Thus, smart teams select big guys. Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher has issued guidelines to his scouts saying that they should consider defensemen less than six feet tall only if they are exceptionally talented. However, with the NHL hoping to add as many as seven new teams before the end of this decade, players previously stereotyped as too small will gain some of the additional jobs. Even more may find work if the NHL finally eliminates fighting—and renders superfluous the goons who now occupy the last couple of spots on most teams' rosters. Meanwhile, Fleury's performance is writing a new bill of rights for the little man.
Size isn't the only obstacle Fleury has had to overcome. When he was 14 years old, an opponent's skate blade severed an artery and the ulnar nerve in his right arm, leaving Fleury with numbness in his fingers. Naturally, the season he spent out of hockey waiting for the nerve to regenerate only made Fleury love the game more. He cannot remember a time he didn't want to play professionally. Nor a time when he wasn't told he was too small to realize his dream.
Fleury's father, Wally, is 5'8", and his mother, Donna, is 5'1". So genetics weren't on Theoren's side. "Even the girls were taller than me," Theoren says. "I was always the smallest guy." He was also the fastest. Until Fleury left his hometown of Russell, Manitoba (pop. 1,800), to play junior hockey, his skating and passing skills were all he needed to excel. But at Moose Jaw, where he went to play at age 16, Fleury, then already 5'6" but a waiflike 140, suddenly found himself regularly giving up 30 pounds to opponents. He decided that a stick held above waist level was valuable as a deterrent. "I wondered what I was getting myself into," says Fleury. "So I started to play that aggressive style."
That style won him space to operate, plus a reputation as an irritant—even before he jumped onto the back of a Soviet player who was fighting with one of Fleury's Canadian teammates during the 1987 world junior championships in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. The result was a bench-clearing brawl that didn't end until tournament officials turned out the arena lights. Both teams were disqualified, but it did not occur to Fleury to be embarrassed. His only reaction was that he was delighted to have played well against the best junior-age talent in the world.
The next year, Fleury helped Canada win the junior gold medal. He then returned to Moose Jaw to finish the Warriors' season before joining Salt Lake City—in time to score 11 goals in eight playoff games. After playing 40 games for Salt Lake at the start of the next season, he was called up to Calgary.
Fleury was an instant hit with Flame fans and an instant mishit with his teammates. "Most guys who get to this level have been told many times on the way up that they wouldn't make it," says Calgary center Joe Nieuwendyk, "and I'm sure it was multiplied 10 times in his case. So Theo expressed himself to everybody, the media included, that he was confident."
The Flames didn't begrudge him the media attention, but they were offended by some of his statements. "It was just a few things that made it sound like he was trying harder than some of his teammates," says goalie Rick Wamsley.
Tensions have eased, although there still isn't a great deal of warmth between Fleury and many of his teammates. Shannon Griffin, who is Fleury's 21-year-old fiancèe and the mother of his three-year-old son, Joshua, says she felt they were outsiders at the celebration following Calgary's winning of the 1989 Stanley Cup. "I like everybody to like me," she says, "but I don't think it bothers Theo that he's not the most popular guy on the team."
Perhaps that's because Fleury may have considered being well-liked a lost cause long before he joined the Flames. When Theoren was growing up, his father, who drove heavy equipment for the town of Russell, had a drinking problem and often embarrassed him in front of his teammates. "He would talk loud at games, say things like 'Theoren's going great tonight, but what about you guys?' " says Donna. Wally joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1985. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror anymore," he says. Since he went on the wagon, his relationship with Theoren and his other sons, Travis (17) and Ted (20), who is playing tier II junior hockey in Neepawa (Man.), has improved. "Now we're best buddies," says Theoren.
Griffin, a Moose Jaw native who met Fleury at a Meet the Moose Jaw Warriors barbecue, says his home environment was more of a disadvantage than he admits. "He would never complain, never embarrass his father or mother, who are very good-hearted people," she says. "In fact when Theoren saw where [former teammate] Joey Mullen grew up, in Hell's Kitchen in New York, he said he couldn't believe Joey and his brothers got out of there alive.
"Everything's relative, I guess, but it wasn't easy for Theoren. I don't think he ever had a pair of skates that wasn't paid for by somebody else in the town. Somebody usually made sure his hotel room was paid for when they'd go away for youth hockey tournaments.
"But he was a good player that they wanted to take care of. And I don't think everybody in Russell has been as nice to his father. He might need an artificial knee [due to arthritic deterioration from a baseball injury] and can't work anymore, and the town isn't giving him very much. Theoren's mom and dad still live in low-cost rental housing. Our next project is to get them a house."
Griffin is taking courses at the University of Calgary and hopes to become a teacher. She and Fleury will be married but they have yet to begin the extensive counseling the Catholic Church requires of a couple who have had a child out of wedlock. For the record, Griffin is five feet and isn't counting on Joshua to receive a basketball scholarship. She says Fleury's on-ice personality bears no resemblance to the one he displays at home. And there are even indications that he is beginning to mellow during games, if only slightly. "I think he's toning it down," says Risebrough. "He's learning to apply [his feistiness] for the team's sake."
Fleury's sense of team loyalty has always been strong. At the world championships this last spring, most of the Canadian athletes grumbled about having to play a game against Sweden, which followed two consecutive Canadian losses. A win against the Swedes would have given the Canadians third place in the tournament. Fleury had no complaints. "What do you mean it's a nothing game?" he said to reporters. "We're playing for the bronze medal."
The look of earnestness on his face made it clear that Fleury has never played a meaningless game. "A big guy has to prove he can't play," he says. "A little guy has to keep proving that he can." So he skates resolutely on.
"It's funny, but I'm a pessimist by nature," says Griffin. "If Theoren says he's going to be home at noon and he isn't there at 12:20, I think, Accident. But nothing about him being on the ice bothers me. I think he's indestructible. If some big guy comes after him and a fight starts, I just know that in a few seconds he'll come crawling out between somebody's legs."