- George Johnson, NHL
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It's colder than a mother-in-law's kiss in Grande Prairie, northern Alberta, this January late afternoon. The temperature hovers around minus-30 degrees Celsius (minus-22 south of the border). Snow is blowing.
Yet the Horse Lake Thunder are hotter than they've ever been before. Senior hockey is hotter than it's been in decades. The Grande Prairie Athletics' community-owned 1,600-seat rink, the Coca-Cola Centre, is sold out. Team officials are wondering how many standing-room only tickets they can peddle without offending the fire code. Television cameras are on hand. Everyone in Canada, tip-to-tip, has heard about this game.
A fallen icon has emerged from the shadow lands.
"I can't figure out what's so fascinating about Theo Fleury,'' Theo Fleury is protesting, sounding tired and just a little bit exasperated.
"I really can't.
"Why can't I make a move in my life without somebody being interested?
"People think I'm either drunk or crazy. 'Theo Fleury: Substance Abuser...' That's something I have to deal with but it's not my whole life. I find it strange that people I've never met seem to know me. Or think they do. Everybody's pre-judged me. I haven't played a game for, what, 17 months? Anybody else joins a senior team -- and there are thousands of 'em out there -- and it's no big deal. Just a guy going out to play, right? Happens all the time. But if it's me, it gets plastered all over the papers and on TV.
"I find it unbelievable. Hilarious.
"All I want to do is play some hockey.''
In less than 30 minutes, or about four hours before game time, he'll be told he can't even do that.
Fleury's well-chronicled bouts with alcohol have all but ended his chance to play at the highest level, for the highest renumeration. For the Chicago Blackhawks or any other National Hockey League team. In quest of the Stanley Cup, symbol of professional hockey supremacy in North America.
Apparently, he can't play in the North Peace senior Triple A league, either. For the Horse Lake Thunder or any other team, in quest of the Allan Cup, the symbol of amateur hockey supremacy in Canada.
Appallingly close to what would've been the most-publicized senior hockey debut ever, Hockey Alberta ruled Fleury ineligible to play -- although he never suited up a minute for the Blackhawks in 2003-04, didn't collect a dime in salary from them and was suspended pending application for reinstatement for his substance-abuse transgressions -- because he was technically still under NHL contract. That's a no-no in an all-amateur world.
As with so much around Fleury almost since he arrived on the NHL's doorstep and pushed himself into our consciousness on Jan. 3, 1989, the whole thing seems a trifle Rod Serling-ish.
And, for someone who's taken his share of hard knocks during a meteoric ascension to fame and fortune (most of those, it must be acknowledged, self-inflicted), stupidly petty.
Former NHL tough guy Gino Odjick, who plays for Horse Lake and got Fleury interested in this idea in the first place, called Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson to protest for the little guy's reinstatement and still held out hope he'd be available for the Thunder's Saturday night home game at the Horse Lake First Nation reserve, approximately 45 minutes north of Grande Prairie.
This story isn't over yet. Much to Fleury's chagrin.
During a news conference after receiving the news of his ineligibility, he said his understanding was that an anonymous source from the NHL had tipped off Hockey Alberta about his ineligibility and openly wondered if someone in the league didn't have a "vendetta" against him.
One thing about little Theo: He's always been at his absolute best when spurred by somebody or some thing to fight against, whether they be real or imaginary.
He wants to know why people are still interested? Well, because of the way he played, mostly -- chip hanging out there on the shoulder, daring you to knock it off; the passion and the anger and all coiled up in this one tiny body. Because he represented the underdog. Because he was outspoken and funny and honest.
And, yes, because of the dark side that we know of, and the one we can only guess at.
Fleury has returned to live in Calgary, the site of his greatest NHL moments and where he has always seemed to feel most at home. He says he hasn't set foot in Santa Fe, N.M., where he bought a house in order to be close to the substance-abuse treatment facility he attends, in four months. His oldest son, Josh, is bunking with him these days. He's played some pick-up hockey, but that's been about it. He has free time. Maybe too much free time. His demons, he knows, are lifelong companions.
He claims he hasn't entirely ruled out mounting a pro comeback -- although, at 36 (yes, hard to believe, isn't it?), jowly, way out of shape, and facing a lockout that shows no signs of ending, that seems out of the realm of possibility, even for someone who's spent a great part of his life flipping the finger at the odds stacked against him.
Fleury's has been a ghostly, fleeting presence since that early morning outside the strip bar in Columbus that signaled the downfall of one of the most amazing, inspirational, frustrating and entertaining hockey careers in memory. Oh, he'll pop up on the JumboTron at a Calgary Flames' playoff game or at his annual charity golf tournament. But he certainly has not sought out the spotlight in virtual retirement.
His life today, he says, is "awesome'' and the hope, knowing him just a little, is that it's true. But you wonder.
So much of him is indistinguishable from the game. It was how he expressed himself. His ticket from nowhere to somewhere. His identity, virtually.
Fleury says he decided to give Horse Lake a try because "I wanted to see if I still have that competitive drive. I wanted to see how much I missed it.
"I wish people would just leave me alone. It's not a big deal, right?"
It's four hours from puck drop in ice-bound Grande Prairie, northern Alberta. About 30 minutes away from the phone call informing him that he'd made the trip north for nothing. Theo Fleury repeats himself.
"All I want to do is play some hockey."
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
22hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com