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The Flames didn't begrudge him the media attention, but they were offended by some of his statements. "It was just a few things that made it sound like he was trying harder than some of his teammates," says goalie Rick Wamsley.
Tensions have eased, although there still isn't a great deal of warmth between Fleury and many of his teammates. Shannon Griffin, who is Fleury's 21-year-old fiancée and the mother of his three-year-old son, Joshua, says she felt they were outsiders at the celebration following Calgary's winning of the 1989 Stanley Cup. "I like everybody to like me," she says, "but I don't think it bothers Theo that he's not the most popular guy on the team."
Perhaps that's because Fleury may have considered being well-liked a lost cause long before he joined the Flames. When Theoren was growing up, his father, who drove heavy equipment for the town of Russell, had a drinking problem and often embarrassed him in front of his teammates. "He would talk loud at games, say things like 'Theoren's going great tonight, but what about you guys?' " says Donna. Wally joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1985. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror anymore," he says. Since he went on the wagon, his relationship with Theoren and his other sons, Travis (17) and Ted (20), who is playing tier II junior hockey in Neepawa (Man.), has improved. "Now we're best buddies," says Theoren.
Griffin, a Moose Jaw native who met Fleury at a Meet the Moose Jaw Warriors barbecue, says his home environment was more of a disadvantage than he admits. "He would never complain, never embarrass his father or mother, who are very good-hearted people," she says. "In fact when Theoren saw where [former teammate] Joey Mullen grew up, in Hell's Kitchen in New York, he said he couldn't believe Joey and his brothers got out of there alive.
"Everything's relative, I guess, but it wasn't easy for Theoren. I don't think he ever had a pair of skates that wasn't paid for by somebody else in the town. Somebody usually made sure his hotel room was paid for when they'd go away for youth hockey tournaments.
"But he was a good player that they wanted to take care of. And I don't think everybody in Russell has been as nice to his father. He might need an artificial knee [due to arthritic deterioration from a baseball injury] and can't work anymore, and the town isn't giving him very much. Theoren's mom and dad still live in low-cost rental housing. Our next project is to get them a house."
Griffin is taking courses at the University of Calgary and hopes to become a teacher. She and Fleury will be married but they have yet to begin the extensive counseling the Catholic Church requires of a couple who have had a child out of wedlock. For the record, Griffin is five feet and isn't counting on Joshua to receive a basketball scholarship. She says Fleury's on-ice personality bears no resemblance to the one he displays at home. And there are even indications that he is beginning to mellow during games, if only slightly. "I think he's toning it down," says Risebrough. "He's learning to apply [his feistiness] for the team's sake."
Fleury's sense of team loyalty has always been strong. At the world championships this last spring, most of the Canadian athletes grumbled about having to play a game against Sweden, which followed two consecutive Canadian losses. A win against the Swedes would have given the Canadians third place in the tournament. Fleury had no complaints. "What do you mean it's a nothing game?" he said to reporters. "We're playing for the bronze medal."
The look of earnestness on his face made it clear that Fleury has never played a meaningless game. "A big guy has to prove he can't play," he says. "A little guy has to keep proving that he can." So he skates resolutely on.
"It's funny, but I'm a pessimist by nature," says Griffin. "If Theoren says he's going to be home at noon and he isn't there at 12:20, I think, Accident. But nothing about him being on the ice bothers me. I think he's indestructible. If some big guy comes after him and a fight starts, I just know that in a few seconds he'll come crawling out between somebody's legs."