Suspended Fleury eyes comeback at 41

Updated: August 12, 2009, 7:19 PM ET
Associated Press

CALGARY, Alberta -- Now that he is sober, 41-year-old Theo Fleury wants to resume his NHL career after a six-year absence.

Fleury is preparing for NHL training camp next month, but he doesn't know if any of the 30 teams will invite him for a tryout. He will also need to be reinstated to the league before he can take that step.

When he left the NHL after the 2002-03 season, the diminutive forward was under indefinite suspension for violating the NHL's substance abuse policy.

"I knew I wanted to achieve sobriety at some point in my life," Fleury said Wednesday. "I knew I had a problem. I never hid that fact from anybody.

"At heart I'm a hockey player, first and foremost. Obviously I didn't go out the way I wanted to."

Fleury has been sober for four years with the help of Alcoholic's Anonymous and the support of his family. He has contacted the NHL about reinstatement.

"We're working through a process. I don't know if you can say I've asked," Fleury said. "I also understand there were some consequences for my actions and this is all part of the consequences. I didn't expect an answer right away."

Fleury was considered a long shot to play in the NHL when he was drafted 166th overall by the Calgary Flames in the 1987 draft. At barely 5-foot-6, he was thought to be too small for the rigors of the league.

He scored 455 goals and helped set up 633 others in an NHL career that lasted 15 seasons and included over 1,000 games with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. He won the Stanley Cup in his rookie season with Calgary in 1989, and played in seven NHL All-Star games.

Fleury had 34 goals and 38 assists in 77 career playoff games. He was also a member of the Canadian team that won the Olympic gold medal in 2002.

He played with his heart on his sleeve, and his tenacity made him a home crowd favorite. Fleury also battled alcoholism throughout his career.

"I knew something was wrong about 15 years ago," he said. "I just didn't have the tools to be able to deal with life. I started picking up really good tools to get to a point four years ago where I knew I could stop and continue and maintain my recovery and sobriety."

A return to the NHL after such a long absence is a tall order. Detroit Red Wings defenseman Chris Chelios played sparingly last season at age 47, but he has never left the league.

Veteran forward Claude Lemieux was 43 when he made a comeback with the San Jose Sharks. He played in 18 games last season after a five-year absence, posted one assist, and retired again during the offseason.

Fleury notched 12 goals and 21 assists in 54 games with the Blackhawks in the 2002-03 season. He has played in Europe and in North American senior leagues since then, and operated a cement company in Calgary in recent years.

"They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I'm going to stick with that," Fleury said. "I have to believe in my own mind I can do this. If I didn't, then it would be a waste of time.

"I think the biggest thing is that I'm healthy again. I've lost a lot of weight and eating properly and sleeping well. It's been all part of my personal growth more than anything else."

Fleury has been working out with a trainer, and skates regularly with NHL players at a rink in western Calgary.

It was difficult to gauge his readiness for the NHL while he played summer hockey on Wednesday. The players were going half-speed and shooting pucks at a female college goalie.

"I don't think the game passes anybody by," Fleury said. "I don't know if I'm at that level or not. We'll see what happens when I'm actually competing against guys who are NHLers. Then we'll find out.

"All I know if I do get a chance, I'll go to training camp and do the best that I can and hopefully they like what they see and find somewhere I can fit."

Brent Sutter, the Flames' new head coach, stopped in briefly at Wednesday's skate but wouldn't give his thoughts on Fleury's chance of a comeback.

"It's a tough thing to do when you haven't played at that level for a long time," Sutter said. "The game has changed a lot since then, too. It's certainly a quicker game today than it was.

"But I guess he's been training, from what I'm hearing, and he's been doing the right things. Whether it can happen or not, I don't know."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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