|Tuesday, July 30
Fleury: 'I was nuts last year. Absolutely'
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
Those who've known Theoren Fleury ever since he was a squalling infant left on the Calgary Flames' doorstep on New Year's Eve, 1988, on the threshold of fame and wealth and glory, wonder how it's all going to end.
And there is no doubt that the game is what has consumed Theoren Fleury, defined him, for as long as we, as he, can remember. The rink is where he feels the safest, the most at ease. It is where he best expresses himself.
"I don't think about that, about what might happen six years down the road," Fleury said, relaxing on the patio at Pinebrook Golf Club just outside Calgary an hour or so before the shotgun start to his annual tournament in support of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation research. "What I think about is now.
"It's all a learning experience, you know. It's all about growing up. It's all about what's important to me. What's going to keep me happy. What's going to keep me sober. They have all these stupid sayings" -- in the substance abuse program he voluntarily entered after a personal epiphany a year and a half ago -- "but they have so much meaning.
"If I drink tonight I might not have a tomorrow. There might not be any more career. I'm not concerned with what's ahead. I'm concerned with what's going to keep me sane."
And Fleury -- the player who got into an off-ice scuffle with the San Jose Sharks' mascot in December, remember -- admits sanity is a very tenuous thing.
"Oh, I was nuts last year. Absolutely.
"I was out of control. I wasn't handling things the proper way.
"(His threats of going to) Europe? That shows the insanity of my situation. Me go to play in Europe? C'mon. But that shows you where I was at the time."
A year ago, at this same golf club, Fleury held an emotional press conference to finally address the personal demon that had already become public knowledge -- his battle with the bottle. His boss, Rangers general manager Glen Sather, sat beside him to lend support. Members of the New York media had flown in for the event. The lawn around the clubhouse teemed with onlookers. All it needed, quite frankly, was a ferris wheel and cotton candy to be classified an honest-to-goodness circus.
Meet the new Theo Fleury.
He's 34 now, still high maintenance. But these days the mood is decidedly low key.
"There was a time in my life when I loved all the attention. I loved the spotlight. Now, I can honestly say I hate it.
"I don't want it anymore.
"I used to talk to you guys about anything. Anything at all. I was always so open. Well, I don't want to talk about my private life anymore. Last year, when things were so crazy, my dad kept calling me to say 'They're being so unfair to you!' You know what really bugged me? When people said I was too dangerous to take a chance on at the Olympics. When I want something bad enough, I have always been able to control my worst instincts. Did I want to go to the Olympics? Yes. Did I want that gold medal? More than anything. But all people wrote about was that I was a ticking time bomb and all that other stuff.
"I know you guys have to write stories to sell papers or get people to watch your TV programs. But there's a limit.
"So from now on the personal stuff is just that -- personal. If you want to talk hockey, I'll talk until you get so sick of me you walk away because you're bored."
Over the years, Theo Fleury has been many things. Entertaining. Enlightening. Explosive. Exasperating. But almost never -- ever -- boring.
The alcohol battle is ongoing. His marriage has crumbled. He is, at the moment, unattached professionally, too. Yet Fleury argues that his life is on the upswing, his sense of himself improving, his understanding of what can make him happy clearer than ever before.
(Of course, he was saying exactly the same things at this time a year ago...)
"I've been chilling out in New Mexico. I wanted to disappear for a while, relax, hang out, work out, sit in my hot tub and look at the lovely blanket of stars every night.
"I haven't thought about hockey much, to be honest with you. I go once a week and play pick-up with a bunch of guys around Santa Fe who don't even know how to skate. It's a blast.
"That's the way I like it."
The guys he'll play with come September will all know how to skate. Fleury, of course, became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after the Rangers balked at picking up the $7 million option on his contract. His demons are well known to all. But he will be back in the NHL. His talent is too great, his competitive zeal too enticing, for some team not risk rolling the dice on his erratic behavior these last couple of years. The Chicago Blackhawks -- seeking to fill the void created when Tony Amonte departed for Phoenix -- are often mentioned as a possible destination. So, too, the San Jose Sharks, who are keenly interested in Fleury's special on-ice talents. Either one of the Sutter brothers -- Brian in Chitown, Darryl in the Silicon Valley -- would be ideal tough-love coaches for Fleury who, of all people, needs definition and a sense of discipline in his life and in his work.
There's a lot of hard miles on the old odometer, but this is still a big talent, not so far removed from the raggedly urchin who set the hockey world on its ear with his very particular blend of skill, sass and salesmanship. He can still be an impact player; he still hasn't lost that desire to prove wrong those who would dismiss him as too old or too far gone.
"I don't know where yet, I honestly don't, but I'll be somewhere by Sept. 10," vowed Theoren Fleury defiantly (and defiance has always been his most endearing quality).
"I've still got a lot of hockey left in me."
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.