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Theo Fleury: The Improbable Journey of a 5’6″ NHL Superstar

His work ethic, desire, and indisputable talent helped him became a fan favorite in every city he played in.

An illustration of Theo Fleury with the Calgary Flames
Credit-Getty/Joker Mag

There aren’t too many sports in which the little man has success, including the NHL. But apparently, someone forgot to tell 5’6” Theroen Fleury.

Fleury’s tale from aspiring professional hockey player to an eighth-round pick to Stanley Cup champion is filled with the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.

Yet despite all of the obstacles in front of him, Fleury’s work ethic, desire, and indisputable talent not only saw him become an NHL All-Star – playing in over 1,000 games – but also a fan favorite in each of the four cities he played in.

Born in June of 1968 in the small town of Oxbow, Saskatchewan (population 1,300), Fleury grew up as one of three boys to parents who battled their own addictions (alcohol and drugs).

At five years old, Fleury turned to hockey to try and curtail his bullying behavior and anger, despite having less than optimal equipment to use.

Theo Fleury: This 5'6" late round draft pick became a 7-time NHL All-Star

After the family relocated to Russell, Manitoba, as a young teen Theo first met WHL scout and future Canadian Junior Hockey coach Graham James while attending the Andy Murray Hockey School. Fleury and James reconnected a couple of years later when the diminutive right-winger started his WHL career with the Moose Jaw Warriors (soon to be the Winnipeg Warriors).

It was here that Fleury figured out due to his size he needed to blend a more physical and unpredictable style of play with his speed and finesse in order to succeed. 

Fleury notched back-to-back 100+ point seasons for the Warriors in his second and third year, but it still wasn’t enough to attract interest from any NHL teams during the 1986-87 Entry Draft – except for the Calgary Flames.

It wasn’t his lack of talent that scared teams off, but rather his lack of size. After being selected in the 8th round with the 166th pick (only two other players from rounds 3 to 8 went on to make an All-Star team and only three others scored more points), the 5’6″ winger finished his final year in the WHL with an impressive 160 points (68 goals 92 assists).

Side note: Fleury was eligible for the draft in 1986, but nobody wanted him then either.

Although there were still concerns about his diminutive stature, the Flames noticed the impact Fleury was having on their IHL affiliate, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. He notched 74 points (37 points, 37 assists) in just 40 games.

Upon being called up to the NHL roster, Fleury made his presence felt in a big way. 

During his shortened rookie season, Fleury came up just short (pun intended) of recording a point per game, finishing with 34 in 36 games. His impact on the team not only helped to propel the Flames to secure the Presidents’ Trophy (best record in the league with 117 points), but more importantly their first Stanley Cup title.

Throughout the Flames’ 22-game run, Fleury tallied 5 goals and 6 assists, including the game-winning goal of Game 1 of the Finals.

Over the course of his eleven seasons in Calgary, Fleury played 791 games and recorded 830 points. But it wasn’t just his ability to score that led the organization and fans to appreciate his play.

It was how he played the game. 

With a chip on his shoulder, Fleury seemed like he had to prove naysayers wrong every night, despite having helped the team to a championship banner. Even during the 1995-96 season when he finished with a team-high 96 points (29 more than his next closest teammate), Fleury did it despite being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease during the preseason. 

One season, the Flames used a billboard picture of Fleury flashing a toothless smile (he was missing his front two teeth) to help sell tickets, with the slogan, “We’ve got room for two more”.

Theo Fleury pointing to his toothless smiling while posing with Santa Clause
“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth!” – Theo Fleury, probably (Credit-Jim Wells/AP)

In yet another memorable moment in Flames-Fleury history, while battling the Dallas Stars in a gritty, hard-fought battle, the feisty forward got hooked in the mouth, opening up a floodgate of blood.

While Calgary’s trainer ran to the dressing room for a replacement jersey, a fan removed their own Flames jersey and tossed it over the glass for Fleury, who stood on the Calgary bench, angry, shirtless, and drenched in blood.

Unfortunately, being a small market team, the Flames could not afford to pay Fleury what he felt he was worth as the final year of his contract was set to run out at the end of the 1989-90 season. Rather than lose him for nothing, the team traded Fleury to the Colorado Avalanche where he suited up for just 15 games.

In the summer of 1999, only the New York Rangers were interested in meeting Fleury’s free agent asking price of $7 million per season, offering a 3-year $21 million deal.

He made the All-Star Game for the seventh time in his career during his second season in The Big Apple. But Fleury’s time with the Rangers was highlighted more for his continued troubles with his personal demons and behaviors than for his point production. These alcohol-infused antics led to various suspensions throughout his career, ultimately ending his time in the NHL after the 2003 season.

After years of playing for various senior hockey league clubs and overseas, Fleury once again found himself as an underdog as he attempted to right the wrong and finish his NHL career on his own terms.

After being reinstated by the league, Fleury returned to the Flames where he was showered by the crowd with cheers of “Theo! Theo! Theo!” as he helped propel the Flames to an overtime victory.

Yes, it was a preseason exhibition game, but it still showed how much fans appreciated Fleury. And after four exhibition games in 2009, Fleury officially walked away from the game he loved.

2009 was a memorable year for Fleury for good and bad.

He finished his NHL career on his own accord.

But the release of his autobiography Playing With Fire shined the spotlight on the unfortunate sexual abuse that Fleury dealt with as a teen from a man he had once trusted to help shape his future.

As of 2023, it remains a mystery as to why Theo Fleury is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Of the four players from the 1987 draft class who recorded more than 1,000 points only Theo Fleury – a Stanley Cup champion and seven-time All-Star – has not been inducted.

“It is important for me to share my experiences in order to create strength and hope for others,” Fleury said.

“No matter how far down you go, it is never too late to come back.”

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Written By

Life-long sports fan and avid basketball junkie in every sense of the word. The same passion I have for the Lakers translates to my extreme dislike for the Duke Blue Devils. As much as I cheer for the favorite and the dynasty, I appreciate and applaud the underdog and the grind whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional, both on and off the field.

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