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Fleury's return sparks fond memories Add to ...

In part, what makes a comeback attempt like Theoren Fleury's so charming is that it gives one the opportunity to re-tell all the old stories - and with Fleury, there were a bunch, from the day he set foot on the ice for the first time at a Calgary Flames' camp, until the day he was traded.

Fleury was essentially chosen by the Flames, in the eighth round of the 1987, to sell tickets for their minor-league affiliate in Salt Lake City.

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No one said it publicly at the time, but it was the consensus, in private conversations, as soon as anyone asked what the heck they were doing selecting a five-foot-six WHL scoring star, in a league that put a premium on big and tough.

Ian McKenzie, the team's co-ordinator of scouting, pushed long and hard on Fleury's behalf, until general manager Cliff Fletcher finally said yes. McKenzie was responsible for many of the Flames' late-round gems in the 1980s - Brett Hull and Gary Suter for two - and so, what he wanted, he usually got … in time.

In those days, the Flames would use their scouts to run the benches during training-camp scrimmages. It was no coincidence that Fleury was placed on McKenzie's team that first year; or that McKenzie did a rare and unusual thing for something as innocuous as a camp scrimmage.

He matched lines.

He made sure that whenever towering Joel Otto was on the ice for one team, Fleury was out there for the other. Now, Otto remember was one of the few players ever to go head-to-head against Mark Messier in his prime and handle the physical battle. At 6-4, Otto was roughly 10 inches taller than Fleury; 40 pounds heavier; and a daunting physical package.

But Fleury scrapped and slashed and basically spent all of his time trying to get under Big Joel's skin. The result: When the session ended, all eyes were trained on Fleury; and all the stories revolved around their David & Goliath battle. Fleury did what any long-shot needed to do - he got somebody's attention. Everybody's attention really.

Which, in a roundabout way, is what's happening again now, some 22 years later. After the Flames granted Fleury a tryout last Friday - he has not played an NHL game in six years and left Calgary for Colorado at the 1999 trading deadline in a deal that brought in Robyn Regehr - he has been the focal point of local coverage all week.

Jay Bouwmeester, the primary off-season acquisition? Reduced to a footnote, which is probably the way the notoriously shy and soft-spoken one likes it. Jarome Iginla? Hardly heard from since the first day, when he mouthed all the right words about the new coaching staff, the new approach etc. etc? Miikka Kiprusoff? A sphinx, as always.

So tonight, Fleury returns to the line-up for an exhibition game against the New York Islanders, playing on a line with Daymond Langkow and Nigel Dawes. The Pengrowth Saddledome sells out for every exhibition game; not every seat however is always filled. Tonight will likely be the exception. All eyes will be trained on Fleury.

His story - a recovering substance abuser, trying to make a comeback at the age of 41 - is inspiring.

The smart money suggests that even if Fleury shakes off the rust and acquits himself well, he will likely be destined to play in Abbotsford for the Flames' minor-league affiliate - at least to begin, to test his commitment to the comeback.

Of course, that was how it was supposed to go at the start of Fleury's career as well. Every one of the 1,088 NHL points (in 1,084 NHL played games) that followed was proof of how well the fiery little one could defy the odds.

Maybe he CAN do it again.

 

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