Arts & Life
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This article was published 27/6/2017 (1184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Nine times hockey’s intelligentsia has considered Theoren Fleury’s resumé and nine times they have concluded others were more worthy of induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The latest rejection came this week when the HHOF selection committee announced its 2017 class and once again passed over Fleury — who was in his ninth year of eligibility — in favour of Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Mark Recchi, Dave Andreychuk and Danielle Goyette.
Now, there’s nothing wrong and everything right with this year’s class. Of course, Selanne is a first-ballot hall of famer. It just makes sense he’d go in at the same time as his longtime linemate Kariya. Recchi gets in on longevity alone — his 1,652 regular-season games are fourth-most in hockey history. Andreychuk — who was also in his ninth year of eligibility — is the all-time league leader in power-play goals with 274. And Goyette helped Canada win seven golds at the worlds and two golds at the Olympics.
So yeah, fine selections — all of them.
The pride of Russell deserves to be inducted on the basis of his statistics alone.
But none of it explains why almost a decade in, a point-per-game guy in Fleury — whose courage on the ice was surpassed only by his courage off it — is still waiting for his call to the hall.
You can make the case for Fleury’s induction several different ways — and we’ll get to that. But at the most basic level, the pride of Russell deserves to be inducted on the basis of his statistics alone.
If Kariya’s point-per-game credentials were good enough for admission — 989 points in 989 career games (how weird is that?) — then surely Fleury’s 1,088 points in 1,084 games are too.
Recchi was a seven-time all-star. So was Fleury.
True, he won just one Stanley Cup in 15 seasons. Andreychuk won just one in 23 seasons.
Fleury’s 455 career goals are 57th all time, his 633 assists are 72nd all time and his 1.004 points per game is 51st all-time.
Ask yourself this: There are 271 players currently in the hockey hall of fame: How is it that Fleury, holding those kinds of rankings in some of the sport’s most important statistical categories, isn’t one of them?
Curious, isn’t it?
The criteria for entry into the hockey hall of fame is "playing ability, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her team or teams and to the game of hockey in general."
Two of those criteria — playing ability and Fleury’s contributions to his teams, both in the NHL and for Canada internationally — are stone-cold locks.
I guess you can question the "sportsmanship" of someone whose 1,840 career penalty minutes are 63rd all-time, but if playing dirty disqualifies you for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, then what the heck is Gordie Howe doing in there?
All of which brings us to the elephant in the room — Fleury’s "character."
Now, I’d argue Fleury’s character is really his strongest quality of all.
The guy overcame obstacles his entire life. He overcame his diminutive stature — at five-foot-six, he had no business even being in the NHL, and you could make a case for his induction into the hall on the basis of being the greatest short guy to ever play the game.
He overcame an eighth-round draft selection, a part of the draft where NHL dreams go to die and which no longer even exists — it ends at seven rounds now.
And, finally, he managed to not only survive, but build a successful NHL career after — let’s not sugar-coat this — being repeatedly raped as a youth by a monster masquerading as a hockey coach in Graham James.
Of all the remarkable, Hockey Hall of Fame-worthy things Fleury accomplished, I’d argue the greatest of all was overcoming darknesses most of us could not even begin to imagine to become a model of strength, courage and tenacity, on and off the ice.
Fleury suffered in silence throughout most of his playing career, enduring both whispers and catcalls that he was the unnamed NHL player Sheldon Kennedy alleged had also been abused by James when Kennedy went public with his own horror story in 1996.
There were NHL-mandated suspensions for substance abuse along the way and Fleury’s battles with cocaine and alcohol addictions ultimately ended his NHL career in 2003.
But then in retirement, Fleury boldly chose to make his story public and to become an outspoken advocate for sexual-assault victims, something he continues to this day.
I’d argue every part of that story strengthens, not weakens, Fleury’s case for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And yet you cannot help but wonder, as the years continue to roll by, whether the people guarding the HHOF entrance believe otherwise.
If it’s not the substance abuse and the suspensions and the ignominious end to an otherwise great career, then what is it? Certainly not his numbers, his abilities or his contributions to the sport, his teams or his country.
Now, no one, least of all Fleury, would argue that what he endured at the hands of James should qualify him for special consideration by the hall's gatekeepers. But it also shouldn’t disqualify him.
And as another year of eligibility passed yet again, it sure looks to me like that is exactly what is happening.
Got another explanation? I’ll wait here.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.
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