Small player; smaller player.
Late-round draft pick; later-round draft pick.
Plays wing for Calgary Flames; played wing for Calgary Flames.
That is where the comparisons between 5-foot-9 rookie Johnny Gaudreau and 5-foot-6 retiree Theo Fleury start and end.
“There’s only one Theo Fleury,” says the one Theo Fleury, when asked about the Flames’ new diminutive talent. “He has less challenges now than I ever did. I was carrying 250-pound defencemen on my back night after night because of the hooking and holding.”
I sat down with Fleury on Wednesday to talk about his second book, Conversations with a Rattlesnake (more on that soon on Sportsnet.ca), but as the 46-year-old’s eyes darted to the NHL highlights playing on a nearby screen, the conversation turned to the franchise with whom he won both his and its only Stanley Cup, in 1989, as a rookie most serious hockey evaluators would dismiss on size alone.
Twenty-five years later, Gaudreau is making noise in Alberta for his early success – 10 points in just 15 NHL games – and the surprising Flames sit near the top of the conference standings, like in Fleury’s heyday.
“I love the era I played in. I think I played in the greatest era of talent in the history of the game,” says Fleury, a point-a-game player through 1,084 games. “I was considered one of those guys who had incredible talent, incredible ability. But a guy like Johnny Gaudreau can play in the NHL right now. He couldn’t play in the era that I played in, unless he changed his style of game.”
“We played because we loved it, and we loved to beat the s— out of each other.”
That’s not a knock on Johnny Hockey, Fleury clarifies; it’s more of an evaluation on how the game has softened. He’s never met the 21-year-old kid from Jersey, hasn’t measured his heart, isn’t certain Gaudreau wouldn’t learn to adapt to the clutch-and-grab tactics Fleury had to battle through.
“But I see how he plays. And I see times when he does have to be physical, it’s difficult for him. I see Johnny Gaudreau as Cliff Ronning. Cliff played that same style of game, and Cliff almost had 1,000 points in the NHL,” Fleury says. Ronning left the NHL with 869 points in 1,137 games.
“So if Johnny goes on to have a career like that, the Flames would be more than happy. There’s a lot more opportunity in the game for smaller players than there has been at any point. I’ve always said: A big player has to prove he can’t play, and a little player has to prove he can play.”
Fleury says he would be thrilled to see the game open up even further. Goaltenders notwithstanding, who wouldn’t want to watch 10-9 horseraces? To see Gaudreau rack up 212 points? When Fleury is critical of the modern NHL or its players, it’s because he wants the sport he loves to flourish.
“When I talk like this, people think, Oh, Theo’s bitter. No. I played the game at the highest level you can play at. I think I know a little about what I’m talking about,” he explains. “I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think I get enough credit for how great a player I really was. There’s this cloud hanging over my head because of the behaviour at the end of my career. But when I put my jersey on every night, no matter what was going on off the ice, I gave absolutely everything I had to give. Sometime I feel that gets lost because of the other stuff.”
“I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think I get enough credit for how great a player I really was.”
In today’s hockey lexicon, they call giving your all “compete level.” And the Flames — a rebuilding club several pundits (*bows head in shame*) figured would Save It for McDavid – lead the league in that category. Tentatively hopeful his alma mater can sustain its 8-5-2 pace, Fleury loves watching them this season.
“You have a group of people who believe in themselves, and how they’ve gotten this belief is through hard work. Everybody that plays the Flames now knows they have to match their work ethic, or they don’t have a chance to win,” he says.
“We live in such an entitled society. I look at my career. Can you imagine if I came into the NHL and got a rookie cap signing? Got a million bucks a year? Where’s the motivation for me to get better? I think I made $90,000 my first year. I didn’t make a million bucks until my fourth contract. There was always a push to get better.”
“Wait,” I interrupt. “So, your push was financially driven?”
“Of course,” he replies, voice raised. “I couldn’t rub two friggin’ nickels together as a kid. I knew the better I played, the harder I worked, the prize was a great life. And I could help my parents out, I could help my brothers, my family. My kids have all been taken care of their entire lives because of the money I made playing hockey.”
Without naming Calgary head coach Bob Hartley specifically, Fleury gives him credit for the team’s hot start. In the endless debate between statistics and intangibles, there is no question on which side Fleury resides.
“In the game now, the coaches who have the least amount of success have zero people skills,” Fleury says. “You can write X’s and O’s on the board all you want; I was never an X-and-O guy. Never paid attention to that stuff. But you throw a puck on the ice, I’ll give you everything I have.”
So, which coach did the best job of getting you to compete?
“Me. Nobody had to motivate me to play hockey,” he says.
Everything leaving his mouth is direct and honest. The eyes have long stopped darting to the television. He looks you straight in the eye.
“Now you gotta kiss kids’ ass to get them to play. That was never an issue for guys in our era,” he says. “We played because we loved it, and we loved to beat the s— out of each other. That’s just the way it was.”