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Flame out
Austin Murphy
March 01, 1999
The Stanley Cup chase could hinge on which contender acquires Calgary's diminutive star Theoren Fleury, a free agent-to-be who's on the block
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March 01, 1999

Flame Out

The Stanley Cup chase could hinge on which contender acquires Calgary's diminutive star Theoren Fleury, a free agent-to-be who's on the block

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Little Man, Big Gap
Over the last two seasons the Flames' 5' 6" Theoren Fleury (above), the NHL's shortest player, has stood head and shoulders above his teammates in scoring. In 1997-98 he had 29 more points than Cory Stillman, Calgary's No. 2 scorer. Through Sunday, Fleury had a 30-point bulge over the Flames' runner-up so far this season, Phil Housley, the greatest differential in the league once again. Here are the widest disparities between teams' leading scorers this season.

TEAM

LEADING SCORER

NEXT HIGHEST

DIFF.

Calgary Flames

Theoren Fleury (65)

Phil Housley (35)

30

Los Angeles Kings

Luc Robitaille (57)

Glen Murray (28)

29

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jaromir Jagr (87)

Martin Straka (58)

29

New York Rangers

Wayne Gretzky (56)

Two tied (37)

19

Ottawa Senators

Alexei Yashin (65)

Shawn McEachern (46)

19

St. Louis Blues

Pavol Demitra (57)

Al Maclnnis (41)

16

Dallas Stars

Mike Modano (59)

Brett Hull (44)

15

Stats through Sunday

—David Sabino

Chaos reigned in the Fleurys' bungalow I on a recent morning. Beaux, almost two, was IF but one of several toddlers underfoot as his parents, Theoren and Veronica, plus assorted relatives and friends, loaded cars with the Fleurys' personal effects.

Haven't you heard? Theoren Fleury, the Flames' sprite of a right wing and the NHL's most enticing piece of trade bait, has bought a bigger, two-story house in the same Calgary suburb where the Fleurys have lived in a modest place for three years. Says Veronica, who's expected to deliver the couple's second child in early April, "We needed more room."

Having peeked at the ultrasound, the Fleurys know that the baby will be a girl. What they have no way of knowing is whether Theo will be around when Veronica goes into labor or how many nights he will spend in the new digs between now and the end of the season. Fleury, who earns $2.4 million, becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, at which time he may command more than $7 million a year—an amount far greater than the small-market Flames are willing to pay. Rather than get bubkes for its only marquee player, Calgary is likely to deal him before the March 23 trade deadline. In other words, now wouldn't be a good time for Fleury to start regrouting the bathroom tiles.

If you are the general manager of a team with realistic Stanley Cup aspirations, now is an excellent time to consider leasing for the rest of this season the 5'6", 180-pound Fleury, a proven scorer and defensive dervish known for taxing the patience of his opponents and ratcheting up his play in the playoffs. It's rare for a player of Fleury's talent and astonishing durability—he has missed only seven games in 10 seasons despite learning that he had Crohn's disease four years ago—to become available for the stretch drive and the playoffs.

Fleury, a 30-year-old who grew up in Russell, Manitoba, was averaging 76 points coming into this season, and his 65 points (on 29 goals) through Sunday ranked him sixth in the league for 1998-99. But numbers only hint at what makes Fleury appealing. He's fast, furious and fearless—which the shortest player in the NHL, one who likes to mix it up in the corners and in front of the net, had better be. "He plays with a chip on his shoulder," says Boston Bruins coach Pat Burns. Fleury agrees: "When you're my size, you're never finished proving yourself."

No one in the league puts on a better show, and we aren't just talking about Fleury's often baroque scoring celebrations—who can forget his sliding half the length of the ice on his knees while pumping his fists after a playoff goal in overtime against the Edmonton Oilers in 1991? Flames coach Brian Sutter reckons that fewer than half a dozen players in the league can match Fleury's "pure intensity and passion for the game." Fewer still could not eat an apple off his head. Seldom has a player so small been in a position to have such a large impact on the NHL's second season.

"No question, he could put a team over the top," Burns said on Feb. 11. The following night Burns could only stand behind the bench and look dyspeptic as Fleury set up two goals in Calgary's 4-3 win over the Bruins. Despite coveting Fleury, Burns is unlikely to coach him since Boston is one of the few clubs in the league capable of squeezing a buck harder than Calgary.

Fleury's availability is all the more intriguing because the NHL lacks a truly dominant team. Although they have the league's best record, the Dallas Stars (35-10-9 at week's end) could use more firepower. Will they deal for Fleury? The Stars know he can create offense—he has racked up 40 points in 38 career games against them. They know he's tough. On Dec. 7, after incurring a split lower lip courtesy of a high stick by Dallas defenseman Richard Matvichuk, Fleury was bleeding all over himself and his jersey, but he wouldn't leave the ice until referee Mark Faucette ordered him to the bench. (The league has a rule prohibiting a skater from playing when he has a visible open wound or even blood on his jersey.) As Fleury sat waiting for the trainer to bring him a clean sweater, a fan in the stands at the Saddledome doffed his own Fleury jersey, which was adorned with autographs, and passed it to the Flames bench. When Fleury spotted the signatures he started laughing.

Despite Fleury's toughness, Stars general manager Bob Gainey is partial to the Montreal Canadiens' rugged Mark Recchi, another star forward on the cusp of free agency who might be willing to sign a long-term deal as part of a trade. Gainey is not the only general manager turned off by Fleury's determination to test free agency. Teams would prefer to trade for Fleury on the condition that he sign a new deal before he hits the free-agent market. Fleury doesn't care what a bunch of general managers prefer. "I'm just playing by their rules," he says. For his part, he would rather play in the West. That way, he would not be too far from Josh, his 11-year-old son from a previous relationship who also lives in Calgary and is, according to Veronica, "a huge, huge part of our family."

That's encouraging news to the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks, and should give pause to the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers—Fleury suitors all. Want a dark horse? Keep an eye on New Jersey. Calgary general manager Al Coates has swung deals with Lou Lamoriello, his Devils counterpart. For Fleury, however, the New Jersey Turnpike would take some getting used to. After all, for the last decade he has driven Calgary's somewhat less stressful Deer-foot Trail to and from the rink. "Don't think I've had to honk my horn once," he says.

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