Hockey Digest

The Sound and The Fleury

The Sound and The Fleury – Theo Fleury, hockey player

Chuck O’Donnell

There was a lot of noise last year about Theo Fleury’s disappointing first season in New York. This year, the feisty winger is determined to turn those boos and murmurs into cheers.

THE RANGERS WANTED TO REVAMP their organization this summer, so they made Glen Sather the man in charge of finding the right men. He went and maxed out their credit cards, bringing in Mark Messier for leadership, Sandy McCarthy for muscle, and Vladimir Malakhov for defense. The general manager then hand-picked Ron Low to coach them. Everyone from the stick boy to the head of scouting has been brought aboard with the express purpose of returning the Rangers to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

Hovering below the radar screen, however, is the player who took the most blame for last season’s fiasco. The man who can probably do more to turn the team’s karma around than anyone else sat back in his offseason home in Shuswap, British Columbia and took in the flurry of moves. But what really grabbed Theo Fleury’s attention was Theo Fleury. He had turned his focus inside and began to do some painful soul searching.

What he saw, he didn’t like. While the many moves the Rangers made during their summer of discontent will surely shore up some holes, Fleury knows the truth. All he had to do was look at himself and the season he put together last year–man un-Fleury-like 15 goals and 64 points–to admit he had played “awful” in 1999-2000 and he was “embarrassed” by his performance. And making that admission was the first step toward making sure there will be no repeat performance on Broadway.

“I’m definitely excited about the new season,” says Fleury. “I have something to prove again. It’s always been a motivating factor for me. When people write me off, I’ve always been able to pull something out and use that to my advantage. I’ve done that my whole career. People think I’m done and I’m going to show them that I’m not. Not by a long shot.

“We didn’t get it going right from the start. We put ourselves behind the eight ball. Whether that was chemistry or what, it’s hard to say. Obviously, it wasn’t a great year for any of us. I think lots of guys have lots of things to prove this year, and I think that’s what we’re going to do.”

Fleury was biggest catch of the summer of 1999, when the ex-Rangers general manager Neil Smith signed $67 million in free agents. Fleury, snatched up from the Colorado Avalanche, was supposed to be the sniper the team needed, a speedy winger whose feistiness would rub off on his teammates.

But as a seven-game winning streak in January turned into a mediocre February and a wretched March, Fleury’s goal total barely budged off “E.” He scored just five goals over the final 44 games of the season before a knee injury sent him to the shelf in the season’s final weeks.

If one play was symbolic of the Rangers’ season, it was an early-season game when fourth-line center Tim Taylor leaned in for a faceoff in a game against the Bruins. Suddenly, Taylor jolted upward, threw off his gloves, and skated off the ice. In a game where players shrug off the pain after having their heads bashed into the boards, Taylor was sent off the ice by a nasty splinter from his stick.

If one moment was symbolic of how frustrated the Rangers had grown, it came in a January game when Fleury, a target of Madison Square Garden’s angry gallery gods, responded with an obscene gesture.

Although Fleury later apologized, no words could convey just how bad things would get. Winger Kevin Stevens, considered a leader in the dressing room, was arrested in an East St. Louis, Ill., hotel with a prostitute, her alleged pimp, a taxi cab driver, and crack cocaine. Goalie Mike Richter played the second half of the season with a knee he hurt during the skills competition at the All-Star Game, and his game often suffered. Adam Graves, often the heart and soul of the team, battled personal tragedy when one of his newborn twins eventually lost his fight for life. Even when it became apparent this team was going nowhere but golfing in the spring, coach John Muckler wouldn’t give kids such as Manny Malhotra a chance to play.

Along the way, the unthinkable happened to Fleury: This former 51-goal scorer, this guy who was good for at least 35, 40 goals every season, lost his confidence and lost his game.

“I hit I don’t know how many posts,” says Fleury. “And then I just quit shooting. I was frustrated. I was looking to pass and set up my linemates.”

The whispers began to build, saying Fleury was a Western Conference player who couldn’t adjust to life in the Big East. He couldn’t take the pressures of playing in New York the way Messier had

Fleury says those perceptions are just the work of an imaginative New York media. “There’s pressure no matter where you play, especially if you’re an elite player,” says Fleury. “People expect huge things. You expect those same things out of yourself, too.”

In fact, although he readily admits he didn’t play well overall last year, Fleury thinks he was somewhat unfairly singled out by the fans and media when everything began to deteriorate.

“When I look back on the season and you’re a goal scorer and get lots of points, people will look at your stats and say, `Hmm … 64 points. Well that’s way below his average.'” Fleury says. “I think you have to take the whole equation. Sure it was below my standards, but I think at certain times during the year last year I played pretty good hockey. I just had some really bad luck with some hit posts and goalies making unbelievable saves and what not. I think you have to look at that and say to yourself that when you play as many years in the league as I have, you’re not going to be on every single year. I think I can look at it that way but still know that in the back of my mind I can definitely play better and there are things I need to improve on.

“From where I started to where I’ve come, I’ve made a lot of changes in my game. I think I play both ends of the rink well. I kill penalties and do things that people don’t notice in goalscorers, such as taking faceoffs. People don’t notice how tell you play defensively or how well you penalty kill or get the puck out along the boards–that sort of thing. Those are the types of things I really worked on because when I came into the league, the only thing I knew was offense. I never had to play without the puck. When I played junior and minor hockey, it was a long process to get to the point where I can be relied on in every situation. That’s something I’m proud of.”

The Rangers saw enough in Fleury during his brief glimpses of greatness last year to expect him to have a big year.

“Theo is a world-class player,” Graves says. “You look at the way the whole season went. We all struggled and then there were times when we all played well, although not consistently enough. But he’s a great player, he’s got a great attitude, and he’s been successful for a reason.

“You’ll see: Theo has a lot of character and he’ll be a big player for us this year.”

Fleury knows that he can’t complete his mission alone. He needs No. 1 center Petr Nedved to have another solid year. He need rookie sensation Mike York to avoid the sophomore jinx. He needs Brian Leetch to bring his game up a level or two, near where it was when he won two Norris Trophies.

Fleury applauded the decisions to bring in Sather and Messier, in particular, because “these new people that are in here are winners and come from winning situations. It’s only going to help your team, not hurt it any.” And, Fleury was in contact with Low throughout the summer.

And the addition of McCarthy was huge, no pun intended, because “There were a lot of guys taking advantage of Petr Nedved last year. He was our best player all year long. Darren Langdon was hurt for most of the season and there was just nobody who could fill that role.

“There’s no question Sandy is one of the toughest guys in the league. He has a presence. He makes people accountable on the other team. I think that’s what we need as well. Not only is it a new attitude or an attitude adjustment, we really need to get tougher and that’s why they went out and got him.”

And now maybe Fleury will remind the Rangers why they went out and got him.

Do the Collapse

WAS LAST SEASON REALLY THAT MUCH of a disappointment for Theo Fleury? Judge for yourself. Here is a look at Fleury’s point and goal production in his 806 games with the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche compared to the same numbers registered in 80 games for the New York Rangers last season.

Theo Fleury’s average points per game

Career (through 1998-99): 1.06

1999-2000 season: 0.80

Theo Fleury’s average goals per game

Career (through 1998-99): 0.46

1999-2000 season: 0.19

COPYRIGHT 2000 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group