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The smallest player in the NHL, 5'6", 160-pound right wing Theoren Fleury of the Calgary Flames, might be the most obnoxious one too. Unable to find anyone his own size, Fleury picks on players 30 to 50 pounds heavier and half a foot taller. He slashes at their calves, digs his elbows into their ribs and snarls insults, both generic and personal, at their psyches. And as agitated opponents exhaust themselves chasing him, Fleury adds the ultimate insult: He streaks off to score or set up a goal. When you spend your life defying attitudes, you develop one yourself.
In sum, Fleury is not only intolerable, he's also talented. Last season he scored 31 goals despite being used mainly as a third-or fourth-line player. Now he usually plays on Calgary's No. 2 line, with heady center Doug Gilmour and speedy left wing Paul Ranheim, which forms a potent scoring unit. And Fleury's stats show it. Through Sunday he had 13 goals and 16 assists for the Flames, who were second in the Smythe Division. Fleury, 22, has speed as searing as his ambition, a nice touch around the net, playmaking ability and a low center of gravity, which makes it difficult to bump him off the puck.
A tolerance for contact? He thrives on it. He missed only three games in his four junior seasons with the Moose Jaw (Saskatchewan) Warriors and only two since joining the Flames on Jan. 1, 1989. "Sometimes when a big guy hits me," Fleury says, "I'm surprised that I get back up. I think I bounce off because I keep my body tense."
Fleury keeps the guys on the other team tense too. "He's a jerk," says Edmonton Oiler defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, who is 6'4", 215. "He gets under your skin. He's mouthy. He's trying to get you off your game." Last year, when Fleury was slow to allow Beukeboom to climb out of a pileup, Beukeboom took off a glove and punched Fleury in the face. "I didn't have to do that, but it was too good of an opportunity to miss," Beukeboom said, not at all embarrassed about the difference in weight class.
Not that Fleury was discouraged. Fleury is never discouraged. The Flames and the Los Angeles Kings were ready to begin the second overtime in Game 6 of their Smythe Division semifinal playoffs last spring when Doug Risebrough—then Calgary's assistant general manager and now its coach—commended Fleury for his repeated body checks of 6'4", 225-pound defenseman Larry Robinson. "Keep it up," said Risebrough. "He's 38 years old. Let's try to wear him down."
"Yeah," said Fleury eagerly. "Next time I hit him, I'm going to kill him."
Fleury thinks big, plays big and has sometimes talked so big that even his teammates have been angered. After the Flames were upset by the Kings, he and several Calgary teammates went to Bern, Switzerland, to play in the world championships. When Sergei Makarov, one of those teammates, helped key the Soviet Union's 7-1 rout of Canada, Fleury ripped into Makarov. "Why didn't you play this well for the Flames in the playoffs?" he asked. "We'd still be playing."
Makarov was stunned.
"Aw, I didn't mean anything by it," says Fleury now. "He's a good guy. He's still my roommate."
Fleury is learning such diplomacy at the same time that he's learning the defensive aspects of the game. As a kid who always had the puck in junior hockey, he still has trouble playing without it. When big wingers come out of the corners and drive toward the net, Fleury obviously is not an ideal obstacle. Sometimes, however, the best defense is a good offense, and taking the puck from Fleury is a huge task.