WAYNE FLEMING once walked into a Calgary sports store to buy golf balls and saw his photo framed on the wall: There he was beaming, surrounded by the hockey heroes of the 2002 Canadian Olympic hockey team, gold medals hanging from their necks.
Usually, the Winnipeg-raised Fleming would have quietly passed the picture by. But this time, his longtime friend Jim Benzelock was there to take the store's young cashiers aside. "I said, 'Hey folks, see that guy there? That's my friend, he's the assistant coach of Team Canada," Benzelock recalled, and chuckled. "They went up and said 'Can you sign this for Father's Day?' He signed, but he was so embarrassed."
That was Wayne Fleming though, friends remembered on Tuesday. He was a man who stayed just outside the spotlight, though his resumé was half-a-world wide.
He coached at home, serving nine seasons with the University of Manitoba Bisons starting in 1980; in 1985, he was honoured as CIAU coach of the year. Then he took his coaching talents around the world, from Sweden and Germany back to North America. As a respected assistant coach, he helped shape a number of NHL teams before landing at last in Tampa Bay.
Fleming was still on leave as assistant coach of the Lightning when he died at home in Calgary on Tuesday, with his wife Carolyn at his side. He was 62 years old, and he'd been fighting brain cancer for two years. He is survived by Carolyn, their four children, several grandchildren and his parents.
The final months were difficult. In February, Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame vice-president Don Kuryk flew to Calgary to conduct a special ceremony at Fleming's bedside, eight months before the coach was to be formally inducted into the Hall. Lanny McDonald was there, and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson was there, and Carolyn dressed her husband in his Team Canada jersey and a Bisons blanket.
As Kuryk began to speak about Fleming's long list of achievements, the dying man's eyes opened for a few precious minutes. It was a gift.
On Tuesday, Kuryk said it was an honour to make one last visit to a man who had left such an impression on the hockey world.
"What did he offer to hockey?" Kuryk mused. "He offered the demonstration of what it takes to go forward, of taking a good player to become an exceptional player. He was an artist at training people. It was a God-given gift."
It was all in the little details, Benzelock said, the little things Fleming saw on the ice that others often missed. He watched his teams with an intense and patient eye, prying out little details to shore up defensive schemes and clean up busted plays.
Even in the middle of his cancer fight, he'd watch Lightning games on television and text coaching staff about what he saw, and what the team could improve.
"He was a true soldier," said Benzelock, who met Fleming when the two played hockey for the East Kildonan Millionaires in the mid-1960s. "He was always very quiet, very low-key, and very knowledgeable. When it came down to 'who do you think, what do you think,' everybody respected Wayne Fleming's ideas, and what he delivered.
"And he loved the game of hockey."
Tributes pour in for ex-U of M coach
The sports world paid tribute on Tuesday to Wayne Fleming, a man they remembered as a humble coach, an honoured thinker of the game and the "Indiana Jones of hockey." A few of the missives shared in his memory:
-- "He absolutely had a big impact on Manitoba hockey... I don't think he left his Manitoba roots behind and he was always there to help or be seen. It's the end of a sad story, and he was a good man. He was a real good assistant coach. That was his niche that he settled into. He was a good hard-working individual." -- Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger
-- "Sad to hear of the passing of Wayne Fleming. Was lucky enough to have him as a coach for a season. A great person. RIP Flemmer." -- Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner on Twitter
-- "So sad to hear about Wayne Fleming passing. One of my 1st pro coaches. He could sure run a bag skate. hockey lost a great man today! RIP." -- Dallas Stars winger Eric Nystrom on Twitter
-- "Thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Fleming family. Wayne was a great coach and even better man." -- Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos on Twitter
-- "The Philadelphia Flyers are deeply saddened with the news of the loss of Wayne Fleming today. The hockey world lost a great friend, a wonderful human being and a terrific hockey mind. We send our condolences to Wayne's wife, Carolyn, their four children and the rest of the Fleming family." -- Official release from the Flyers, where Fleming served as assistant coach from 2002 to 2006.
-- "Hockey Canada has lost a great friend, and the hockey world has lost not only a tremendous coach, but a wonderful man. We send our condolences to Wayne's wife, Carolyn, their four children and the rest of the Fleming family." -- Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson