Theoren Fleury's comeback attempt with the Calgary Flames at age 41, after six years away from the NHL, was one of the compelling stories of the preseason. Here's a look at the career of a talented and notorious pest who scored 455 goals and 1,088 points in 15 seasons before his life was derailed in 2003 by substance abuse.
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Born in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, Canada, the speedy Fleury had to develop a fiery, oversized game in order to prove that, at 5-6, he wasn't too small to play in the NHL. He starred as a teenager for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL and, with Team Canada at the 1987 World Junior Championships, played a role in a 20-minute brawl known as the "Punch-up at Piestany" that got his team and the Soviet Union disqualified.
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The Flames chose Fleury in the eighth round of 1987 NHL Entry Draft (166th overall). During his final season in Moose Jaw (1987-88) he tied Swift Current's Joe Sakic for the WHL scoring title with 160 points in 65 games, while spending 235 minutes in the penalty box. After being called up to Calgary, Fleury scored 34 points in 36 games and helped the Flames beat Montreal for the Stanley Cup in 1989.
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In his first full season, Fleury scored 31 goals and followed that performance with 51 goals and 104 points in 1990-91, earning his first NHL All-Star Game appearance. His most famous goal came in overtime against Edmonton in Game 6 of the 1991 Smythe Division semi-finals. His celebration is classic highlight material. Fleury went on to score 30 or more goals in each of his next three seasons, and lead the Flames in scoring six times through 1998-99.
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Fleury became the Flames' captain in 1995 and, two seasons later, potted his 315th career goal to pass Joe Nieuwendyk as the franchise's all-time leading scorer. His accomplishments seemed even more remarkable when he revealed in 1996 that he was battling Crohn's disease, a debilitating digestive ailment.
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Fleury was a mainstay on Team Canada. He captained the squad to the gold medal at the 1988 World Junior Championships while earning tournament All-Star honors and skated at the 1996 World Cup, 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, and 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games where Canada won the gold medal.
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In February 1999, the Flames traded the impending free agent to the Colorado Avalanche, for whom he scored 24 points in 15 regular season games plus another 17 in the playoffs.
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Fleury signed a three-year, $21 million free agent contract with the New York Rangers during the 1999 offseason, but suffered through a disappointing 15-goal season in which he struggled with substance abuse problems and adjusting to big city life in Manhattan.
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Fleury's last hurrah was in 2000-01 when he scored 30 goals for the Rangers and played in the NHL All-Star Game for the seventh time.
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Fleury's behavior became increasingly erratic during his time in New York. In a January 2002 game against Pittsburgh, he left the arena rather than go to the penalty box after being whistled. Two weeks later, he was fined $1,000 for an obscene gesture at fans and later lashed out publicly league officials, whom he felt were persecuting him. He blamed his behavior on personal and family issues.
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After the 2001-02 season, the Rangers traded Fleury's rights to San Jose. A free agent, he signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, but was suspended before the season for violating his aftercare program and sat out two months. In Jan. 2003, he was involved in a brawl at a strip club in Columbus, OH, and later waived. His NHL career effectively ended the following month with yet another suspension for violating aftercare.
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Fleury surfaced with the Belfast (Ireland) Giants and, in 2005, and then the Horse Lake Thunder of Alberta's senior North Peace Hockey League. He also toiled as the owner of a concrete business in Calgary while playing for the Steinbach North Stars senior team. In February 2009, he hired a personal trainer and then convinced the Flames to give him a tryout at their training camp as the 2009-10 season approached.
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During his first preseason game, Fleury was welcomed by the fans in Calgary with standing ovations and he responded by scoring the game-winning goal in a shootout with the New York Islanders. He added a goal and assist in his second game, against the Florida Panthers on Sept. 20, but the fairy tale ended on Sept. 25 when he was released even though he'd said he was willing to play for Calgary's AHL farm team in Abbotsford. Flames GM Darryl Sutter said Fleury should be proud of his performance.
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