Taking him seriously, at least at first glance, is just as difficult. "When I first saw Theo, I thought of him as a small, skilled forward," says Risebrough. "Now I just see a skilled forward."
"At that size, with those thick glasses," says Flame defenseman Gary Suter, "I thought he should be at the library studying for a test." Fact is, Fleury spent his first professional training camp, in 1987, outperforming established players on the Flames. He forced Calgary to consider him to be a legitimate prospect, even though the Flames had drafted him in the eighth round because they thought of him only as a gate attraction for their new farm team in Salt Lake City. The scouts refused to take him seriously despite his scoring 397 points in his final three seasons in Moose Jaw. It takes exceptional skills, plus extraordinary faith from the organization drafting him, for a small player to be chosen high in the draft.
Gifted little players have always found a place in the league. According to the NHL, the most diminutive player to have lasted any appreciable length of time was the 5'1", 145-pound Harry Darragh, who played 314 games for four teams from 1925 to '33. Aurel Joliat (5'6", 136) and Henri Richard (5'7", 160) of the Montreal Canadiens were good enough to become members of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Bobby Lalonde (5'5", 155), who played for four teams from 1971 to '82, survived in an era when the success of the Big Bad Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers' Broad Street Bullies compelled clubs to bulk up in self-defense.
Since the 1971-72 season, the average size of an NHL player has increased from 5'11", 184 pounds to 6 feet, 194. But the size of the standard North American hockey rink, 200 by 85 feet, has remained the same since the game was brought indoors at the turn of the century. Most of the big guys can now do a lot more than just punch, so the issue here isn't so much goonery as it is the fact that players take up more space and run into each other more frequently. And with less open ice, play along the boards and in front of the net becomes more critical. So does the injury factor. The consequences of a 170-pound body colliding with one weighing 200 are predictable. Moreover, the playoff schedule—the two teams that make the Stanley Cup finals will have played a game every other night for seven weeks-rewards the most durable club, not always the most talented one.
Thus, smart teams select big guys. Flame general manager Cliff Fletcher has issued guidelines to his scouts saying that they should consider defensemen less than six feet tall only if they are exceptionally talented. However, with the NHL hoping to add as many as seven new teams before the end of this decade, players previously stereotyped as too small will gain some of the additional jobs. Even more may find work if the NHL finally eliminates fighting—and renders superfluous the goons who now occupy the last couple of spots on most teams' rosters. Meanwhile, Fleury's performance is writing a new bill of rights for the little man.
Size isn't the only obstacle Fleury has had to overcome. When he was 14 years old, an opponent's skate blade severed an artery and the ulnar nerve in his right arm, leaving Fleury with numbness in his fingers. Naturally, the season he spent out of hockey waiting for the nerve to regenerate only made Fleury love the game more. He cannot remember a time he didn't want to play professionally. Nor a time when he wasn't told he was too small to realize his dream.
Fleury's father, Wally, is 5'8", and his mother, Donna, is 5'1". So genetics weren't on Theoren's side. "Even the girls were taller than me," Theoren says. "I was always the smallest guy." He was also the fastest. Until Fleury left his hometown of Russell, Manitoba (pop. 1,800), to play junior hockey, his skating and passing skills were all he needed to excel. But at Moose Jaw, where he went to play at age 16, Fleury, then already 5'6" but a waiflike 140, suddenly found himself regularly giving up 30 pounds to opponents. He decided that a stick held above waist level was valuable as a deterrent. "I wondered what I was getting myself into," says Fleury. "So I started to play that aggressive style."
That style won him space to operate, plus a reputation as an irritant—even before he jumped onto the back of a Soviet player who was fighting with one of Fleury's Canadian teammates during the 1987 world junior championships in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. The result was a bench-clearing brawl that didn't end until tournament officials turned out the arena lights. Both teams were disqualified, but it did not occur to Fleury to be embarrassed. His only reaction was that he was delighted to have played well against the best junior-age talent in the world.
The next year, Fleury helped Canada win the junior gold medal. He then returned to Moose Jaw to finish the Warriors' season before joining Salt Lake City—in time to score 11 goals in eight playoff games. After playing 40 games for Salt Lake at the start of the next season, he was called up to Calgary.
Fleury was an instant hit with Flame fans and an instant mishit with his teammates. "Most guys who get to this level have been told many times on the way up that they wouldn't make it," says Calgary center Joe Nieuwendyk, "and I'm sure it was multiplied 10 times in his case. So Theo expressed himself to everybody, the media included, that he was confident."