Like no other
Fleury contributes unheralded work to golden effortPosted: Sunday February 24, 2002 10:34 PM
Updated: Monday February 25, 2002 12:25 AM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- From a hockey tournament as rich as the one weíve just witnessed, and from a team as full of compelling characters as Team Canada, you can pick any number of players to celebrate. I choose Theo Fleury.
From the moment Fleury strode into Utah, black cowboy hat set jauntily on his head, to the moment he stood with a gold medal around his neck and wept like no other player at the sight of the Canadian flag rising to the E Center rafters, you couldnít take your eyes off him.
Early on, Theo told us what it meant to him to be playing for Canada. He said he remembered 1972 when Paul Henderson scored the fabled goal that beat Russia and won the Summit Series. "I saw it on the TV in the living room and from then on it was my dream to play for Canada," he said. "Hey, I was from parts unknown" -- by which he meant Oxbow, Saskatchewan -- "but I was proud of my country."
But Theo, you remember Hendersonís goal? You were 4 years old. "I was very bright," he said with a snaggle-tooth smile. "I suppose I was the brightest kid from parts unknown."
I donít want to hear about how Fleury went goalless in these six games. If you think he wasnít a game-shaping factor, match in and match out, you werenít paying attention.
He came into the Olympics in the midst of a tempestuous NHL season with the New York Rangers. Heís fought with referees, been ejected and left the Rangers early without a word. Fleury has been through a lot of stuff in his life -- hard, personal stuff.
Heís still going through it. Sometimes itís enough to have him boil over under pressure. We cringed as we wondered what would happen to him here.
Fleury told us what the tournament meant to him and then he showed us. There he was late in Canadaís opening match against Sweden, the game long lost, still skating courageously into the bad parts of the ice, still driving to the net no matter the beating he was taking.
He showed us more in the quarterfinal against Finland when he went chin-to-belly button with 6-foot-4 Finnish defenseman Ossi Vaananen and didnít back down. He showed us with the way he carried the puck so confidently in the final game, and he showed us by the way he behaved. When Team Canada head coach Pat Quinn asked Fleury to check, he checked. When Quinn asked him to play far fewer minutes than heís used to playing with the Rangers, he did so without squawking.
"All I wanted was to help us win," he said shortly after the gold medal game. "You know, this game is not about skill. Iíve played with a 100 guys who have more skill than I have who are now working in restaurants. Itís about determination and heart."
That was what Team Canada was after last summer when the phone rang in Fleuryís home in Santa Fe, N.M. The voice on the other end said, "Theo, it's Wayne."
"I was like, 'Wayne who?'" Fleury recalls.
The voice said, "Wayne Gretzky. We want you to come to camp for Team Canada and be a part of this."
Fleury was a larger part than any statistics sheet will tell you. To a man, Canada talks about their 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic as the game that, psychologically, turned their tournament attitude from bad to good. Hereís a look at a play Fleury made that night with Canada trailing late in the third: he carried the puck into the zone, split two defenders, put a shot on goal and got knocked face first to the ice. He got up, chased down the loose puck, took it off the boards, swept behind the net and then, from the deep left wing corner, threw a beautifully placed pass to the front of the goal. Joe Nieuwendyk knocked it in to tie the score.
"I wake up every morning grateful to be on this team," Fleury said that night.
About 10 minutes into the gold medal game, a whistle blew and Fleury was sent off for cross-checking Chris Chelios, even though Fleury had barely nudged Chelios near the U.S. net. "Thatís an [effiní] joke call," Theo shouted at referee Bill McCreary as he skated off. Fleury was right; it was a joke call. Call him the truth-teller from parts unknown.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com.