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Fleury deserves spot in shrine

Former hockey player Theoren Fleury Fleury was inexplicably snubbed for a 12th straight year of eligibility.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Former hockey player Theoren Fleury Fleury was inexplicably snubbed for a 12th straight year of eligibility.

Opinion

Theoren Fleury is too proud to say it, so I will: he was robbed. Again.

The former NHL superstar who grew up in Russell should have been taking his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Instead, Fleury was inexplicably snubbed for a 12th straight year of eligibility.

Hockey great Fleury not anxious about whether call to the Hall is coming

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The Vancouver Canucks' Christian Ehrhoff (right) gets a taste of Fleury's grit during a game in 2009. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)						</p>
The Vancouver Canucks' Christian Ehrhoff (right) gets a taste of Fleury's grit during a game in 2009. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

Posted: 22/06/2020 7:00 PM

Theoren Fleury won't clutch his phone and pace around his Calgary home this week, even if a call welcoming him into the Hockey Hall of Fame might finally come.

His days of waiting with bated breath have long passed.

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Why? Who the heck knows? The 18-person selection committee, which is laughably too small to begin with given the magnitude of their decisions, operates in secrecy. As a result, we’re only left to speculate as to why they felt Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Kevin Lowe, Doug Wilson, Kim St-Pierre and builder Ken Holland were deserving this time around, but Fleury was not.

The panel is comprised of ex-players including Jari Kurri, Igor Larionov and Cassie Campbell-Pascall; media members including Bob McKenzie, Pierre McGuire and Michael Farber; and former and current league executives including Brian Burke, David Poile and Winnipeg Jets chairman and co-owner Mark Chipman.

Because vote totals aren’t released, we have no idea how close Fleury came, who may have lobbied for his inclusion and who was against it.

Compare that with how the NHL’s annual awards work, in which a couple hundred members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association reveal our ballots every year in the name of accountability and transparency, which is how it should be. If everyone can see how we all voted on things like the Selke, Lady Byng and Masterton trophies, surely the process that leads to the crowning achievement of the sport can follow a similar template.

Fleury lived to tell his tale despite some close calls near the tail end of his career, when things were spiralling out of control as he tried to mask the pain in unhealthy ways. For that, he deserves not only our sympathy, but our admiration.

It can’t be Fleury’s on-ice accomplishments keeping him out. Despite standing just 5-6, the seven-time all-star is one of just 15 players in NHL history to average at least a point per game in both the regular season (1,088 points in 1,084 games) and playoffs (79 points in 77 games). Yet he remains the only member of that elite list to not be in the HHOF.

Fleury also made those around him better, as proven by being a Stanley Cup champion (1989), an Olympic gold medallist (2002) and a world junior gold medallist with a decorated history of international play. He was also a bona fide pest and agitator, a classic example of a guy you’d love to have on your team but hate to play against.

Was it something he said? There’s no question there are some in the so-called hockey establishment that aren’t big fans of the outspoken Fleury.

Fleury, the seven-time all-star, is one of just 15 players in NHL history to average at least a point per game in both the regular season (1,088 points in 1,084 games) and playoffs (79 points in 77 games).

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Fleury, the seven-time all-star, is one of just 15 players in NHL history to average at least a point per game in both the regular season (1,088 points in 1,084 games) and playoffs (79 points in 77 games).

He is not without flaws, including off-ice incidents and a drug-related suspension that landed him in the league’s substance abuse program.

But it would be a travesty if his troubled past is being used against him. If anything, what Fleury endured throughout his career makes his candidacy even more legitimate.

Imagine being one of the best players in your era while also battling multiple demons including cocaine and alcohol addiction, mental health issues stemming from a traumatic childhood and upbringing, and living with the secret that you were repeatedly molested by someone you viewed as a mentor and parental figure.

Fleury lived to tell his tale despite some close calls near the tail end of his career, when things were spiralling out of control as he tried to mask the pain in unhealthy ways. For that, he deserves not only our sympathy, but our admiration.

Since retiring from the NHL following the 2002-03 season, Fleury has made an even bigger impact off the ice. In 2009, the former member of the Moose Jaw Warriors junior team revealed in his autobiography, Playing With Fire, that ex-coach Graham James sexually assaulted him repeatedly over a two-year period, beginning when he was just 13.

James ultimately plead guilty to two charges in 2010 related to Fleury’s abuse and was given a two-year sentence. And Fleury became a vocal advocate for sexual-assault victims and those suffering from addiction and mental health issues, showing no one is immune and that it’s OK not to be OK.

He has since been honoured with the Canadian Humanitarian Award and the Queen’s Jubilee Medallion for his many contributions to the country. Up next should be a Hall of Fame induction.

Since retiring from the NHL following the 2002-03 season, Fleury has made an even bigger impact off the ice.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES

Since retiring from the NHL following the 2002-03 season, Fleury has made an even bigger impact off the ice.

Given the current climate in our world, one where social justice issues are rightfully front and centre, I had hoped Fleury’s incredible career might be viewed in a different lens and he’d finally get the recognition he deserves in the hockey world.

Sadly, I was wrong.

There will be other chances to get this right, and you just have to look at the likes of Wilson (24th year of eligibility) and Lowe (19th year) to see that sometimes good things do come to those who wait. Fleury isn’t the only exclusion that has sparked intense debate, with the likes of Alexander Mogilny, Daniel Alfredsson and Rod Brind’Amour also coming up short Wednesday.

Now 51, Fleury told colleague Jason Bell earlier this week he isn’t worried about something he can’t control, choosing instead to celebrate the fact he’s coming up on 15 years clean and sober. In that sense, he’s very much got his priorities straight.

“The biggest thing that we have never been taught is compassion. We’ve only been taught to react with anger and rage and all that stuff. How’s that working for the world? It’s not.” – Theoren Fleury in a 2018 interview

I still think back to a conversation I had with Fleury in 2018, when he explained why he’d like to one day sit down with James to discuss what he did, and the impact it had on his life. To me, it perfectly summed up the person he’s become.

"The biggest thing that we have never been taught is compassion. We’ve only been taught to react with anger and rage and all that stuff. How’s that working for the world? It’s not," Fleury told me. "The greatest revenge is peace, happiness, love, kindness, compassion, humility, vulnerability — all that stuff. That’s where we’ve got to get to."

Fleury may have been small in stature, but he’s proven time and time again that few, if any, could match his big heart, courage and conviction. He’s a Hall of Fame human being who has been to hell and back and deserves a spot in hockey’s hallowed shrine.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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