For months, they had been coming to his Calgary home to pay their respects. Mike Babcock from the Detroit Red Wings. Ken Hitchcock from the St. Louis Blues. Rick Bowness from the Vancouver Canucks. Bob Nicholson from Hockey Canada, just to name a few.
Sometimes, Wayne Fleming would be awake but unable to speak; the last few weeks he mostly slept.
What people said then was what people have always said about the 62-year-old Fleming: great coach, great guy, which makes his passing a great loss to hockey.
Fleming died at his home Monday after a lengthy battle with cancer. He had been an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning when a 2011 medical examination revealed he had a brain tumour.
Eight hours of surgery removed most of the malignant tumour but not all of it.
Eventually, slowly, Fleming’s condition worsened until his family notified friends of his death late Monday.
“You ask anyone who played for Flemmer and they’ll say he was a very good person,” said Dave King, who coached the Canadian national team with Fleming as an assistant.
“I remember once we were coaching Canada at the World Student Games in Japan,” added King. “I had to leave early and the team had to play its last game against North Korea and win by 19 goals because of the goal differential. Wayne broke the game down into five-minute segments. He said that was easier for the players to focus on than having to score 19 times in 60 minutes. I told him that was a stroke of genius. They scored 21 times and won the gold.”
Fleming was an essential voice wherever he coached, from the University of Manitoba to Leksands in the Swedish Elite League to six NHL teams (Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Phoenix Coyotes, Tampa Bay).
Fleming was also a crucial figure for Canadian hockey internationally. He and King engineered a silver medal at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Fleming later earned gold as an associate coach with Canada’s teams at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Along the way, the native of Winnipeg earned high praise for his hockey acumen and made countless friends.
“I was a big fan of his for a long time,” Babcock said of Fleming. Recently, when the Red Wings played a game in Calgary, Babcock spoke of a previous visit he made to see Fleming and his wife Carolyn. At that point, Fleming could talk and was still keen to offer his wisdom.
“He told me how he and Carolyn had been having wine the night before he was tested. The next day he goes in for an MRI (and a brain tumour is discovered),” said Babcock. “Before I left his house, Wayne took my hand and said, ‘Don’t take anything for granted.’ That was powerful.”