Fleury confronts everyone's biggest demon: racism

The best and worst of Theo Fleury was back on display recently, eliciting the jeers and cheers that have followed him in equal measure for most of his troubled life. But for every ugly step backwards he's taken ­- and by now, the former NHL superstar should be certified as an expert in that particular direction ­- Fleury's attempts at redemption somehow manage to endear him to us all the more.

Two years removed from the league in which he found fame, fortune and a whole lot of folly, the mercurial right winger returned to the spotlight while playing for the Horse Lake Thunder, a men's league team playing in Saskatchewan for the Canadian senior men's AAA amateur championship. Fleury opened his mouth for the media after the Thunder were eliminated in the semifinal on April 23, and what came out will never be nominated for the Humility Hall of Fame.

"The only reason this tournament sold out was because of yours truly right here," Fleury told the Edmonton Sun, obviously unaware all tickets were sold in advance of his announced presence. "We all know it and I'm going to say it: Once again Theo Fleury puts hockey on the map when it needs it the most."

He wasn't done, though, continuing on to take a swipe at the tournament's paying customers, who booed his every breath.

"Look at the source (of the boos)," Fleury said. "A guy that carries a lunch-pail to work every day, a frustrated human being, he doesn't want to face his problems head-to-head, so who's the perfect target? Theo Fleury. He's had success, he's had fame, he's had fortune. Those people have to yell at me to make themselves feel better about themselves."

Nevermind that Fleury might be dead-center correct about pro athletes serving as the world's highest-paid scapegoats for society's myriad of frustrations; it never behooves players to tear a strip off the folks who pay the freight, especially when they're combining it with an unmistakable exercise in ego-stroking.

However, in the days leading up to his post-elimination rant, Fleury ­- a man of Metis Indian heritage -­ tackled a topic far too few athletes have the courage to talk about: racism.

"The one thing that's really bothered me is the prejudice, still, in (Canada) when it comes to native people," Fleury told the Sun. "I've seen it first-hand in every building (the Thunder) go into, how these people are treated, and it's absolutely embarrassing to be a Canadian and know that stuff is still going on."

Debate Fleury's sense of self all you want, but there's no question he's absolutely right about Canada's shameful treatment of native North Americans. We Canadians can get awful smug about our perceived enlightenment when it comes to skin color, especially compared to the state of race relations south of our border.

Truth is, progressiveness in pockets of the country is readily apparent, but many Canadians simply do a much better job at masking their prejudices than their American neighbors. And though most hockey players who have encountered racism would rather leave unwell enough alone, Fleury has no such qualms.

"I almost called (Hockey Canada president) Bob Nicholson and gave him back my gold medal from the (2002) Olympics. That's how much this affected me and
meant to me," Fleury said of his experiences with the Thunder, which is based out of an Indian reserve in Alberta. "Those are the same people who were cheering for Canada and cheering me on, and at the same time stabbing the people who I have bloodlines with, who are my brothers, so to speak, in the back. That's something that hasn't been a good experience to be around."

Good for you, Theo. Good that you didn't take the easy road, the one most athletes stick to, safe and snuggled in the bosom of clichés and formula. Good that you struck a blow for those of us unwilling to be completely drowned in society's over-glossed trivialities and dim-bulb diversions. Good that you didn't straightjacket your conscience for fear of alienating the remains of your once-burgeoning fan base.

Where are today's Muhammad Alis, Jackie Robinsons and Tommie Smiths, anyhow? Between all-but-ignored genocides, morally anorexic wars, and the kind of political skullduggery that makes Henry Kissinger look like Shirley Temple, there are more than enough causes in desperate need of a champion. Yet when
microphones and cameras gather to present the modern athlete with a platform, odds are he's more interested in promoting the name/logo of his side business than he is in crafting a legacy of substance.

Now, we've often argued that people turn to sports to forget about the world's many woes. We still feel that way. But there's a difference between having one's nose rubbed in injustices (for instance, the nauseating disparity between the salaries of athletes and teachers) and being reminded there's more to life than boxscores and beat-downs. And when a lesson worth learning comes from someone like Fleury -­ someone who's tried to wrestle down his own demons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not ­- the message sinks in that much more.

So yes, Theo Fleury can be brusque, stubborn and self-immersed. Yes, he's made mistakes that have hurt him through and through, as well as those he loves. But he's not about to sit idly by while what matters to him is stuffed inside the musty attic of history.

Whether you're a Theo Fleury fan or not, that's worth a standing ovation.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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