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Rolling Rock - A Unique State of Beer

LCS Hockey

  Fleury Finds a New Home
by Jim Iovino, Ace Reporter

Almost once a year a National Hockey League team partakes in a ritual called Rent-A-Player. The San Jose Sharks did it several years ago with no success. They sent three players to Chicago for unrestricted free-agent-to-be Ed Belfour with hopes of signing the goaltender to a long-term deal before season's end. However, the Eagle decided to migrate South over the summer for a chance to win the Stanley Cup in Dallas. The Sharks were left for dead with nothing to show for their efforts to improve their goalie situation.

But those are the risks involved with trading for unrestricted free agents late in a season. The Colorado Avalanche is the latest team to rent a player. The Avs acquired Theo Fleury, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, from the Calgary Flames along with left winger Chris Dingman for Rene Corbet, Wade Belak, a draft choice and future considerations.

Theo Fleury
Theo Fleury
by Meredith Martini

Unlike the Belfour trade, which eventually hurt the Sharks, the Fleury trade ultimately could do more harm to the Calgary franchise than Colorado.

Even if Fleury decides to jump ship after the season and sign somewhere else, the Avalanche still has a solid nucleus to build off of. The Flames, on the other hand, do not.

A Sad Day in Calgary

Fleury was the heart and soul of the Calgary franchise. His energy lifted the team, and its fans, when times were tough. His skill kept the team respectable even when it looked more like a minor league franchise than an NHL squad. And Fleury's desire, courage and insatiable urge to win and succeed made him the No. 1 player in the hearts of fans in Calgary and throughout the rest of North America.

Fleury stands just 5 feet, 6 inches tall. But even at that height, he meant more to the Flames than any other player to their respective teams in the league. Now that he's gone, no one is quite sure how much longer the team can remain in Calgary.

There was a time when the Flames were one of the best teams in the NHL. That wasn't very long ago. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Calgary fielded one of the most skilled teams in the league with the likes of Fleury, Al MacInnis, Doug Gilmour, Gary Suter, Hakaan Loob, Mike Vernon, Gary Roberts, Joel Otto and Joey Nieuwendyk.

Slowly, however, the economics of the NHL became too great for the Flames to handle. Great players left the team for bigger contracts elsewhere. And when they left, no one was signed to take their place. The Flames fell lower and lower in their division, and it got to the point where the 1989 Stanley Cup champions struggled just to make the playoffs by the mid-90s.

Fleury was there through it all. He was a rookie when the Flames won the Cup in 1989. While his game matured and he rose through the ranks of hockey's elite, the teams he played for became less and less talented. Fleury became frustrated. He was mad that he couldn't carry the team by himself.

Fleury might be small in size, but he carried the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. And a lot of times that weight dragged him down. At one point Fleury turned in his captaincy because the pressure was too great on him to continue to try and play like he knew he should. He couldn't be a good role model when the frustrations of losing continuing to build. At times Fleury needs to release that pressure. He felt guilty doing it, however, when he knew his teammates and the entire city of Calgary was looking at him for positives and a sign that things were going to be all right.

As his teammates continued to exit stage left, Fleury remained a Flame. He loved the city. He loved the atmosphere. He loved the people. And everyone loved Theo. The mutual admiration kept Fleury in Calgary for much longer than people thought. Somehow the Flames scraped together enough money to sign him to a new deal several years ago that paid him $2.5 million a year. There's no doubt that the franchise could hardly afford a salary like that, but the Flames couldn't afford to lose Fleury, either.

That's what made it so tough for the Flames to deal their star last week. That was why there were special sections dedicated to the Fleury trade in all the local Calgary papers.

Fleury was the Flames. Without him, the fans have no one to rally around. No one to peg their hopes on for a brighter future. Without Fleury, the Flames franchise will probably be moved in a few seasons. The money problems that necessitated the Fleury trade will also necessitate the move of the franchise to a bigger market.

Avalanche of Talent

Perhaps it's ironic that Fleury was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche itself moved to Denver from a small-market region, Quebec. The Nordiques, an original member of the World Hockey Association, were forced to move because of the economics of the NHL.

Since moving to Colorado, the Avalanche has turned into one of the best teams in the league. They've been able to succeed for such a long time because they have the capital to re-sign their star players. Team captain Joe Sakic almost left several years ago as a free agent. The Avs have also tried to lock up other key members like Patrick Roy.

The plan is for Sakic, Roy and the rest of the team to talk Fleury into remaining in Colorado for more years to come. First up, however, are the 1999 playoffs and Stanley Cup. The addition of Fleury to an already powerful lineup makes the Avs a front-runner for another Cup run. In Fleury's first game, he teamed up with Sakic, who is a close friend, and Peter Forsberg on a line. Not too shabby.

When Fleury was traded, he was already the sixth-highest scoring player in the league. He did all of that in Calgary without a superstar to pass to or give him passes. Imagine him now on a line with a Sakic, Forsberg or Kamensky. The possibilities for success are endless.

The Avs are hoping Fleury will like the skill level in Colorado so much that he won't want to leave after the season. They will be talking contract with Fleury's agent during the rest of the season with hopes of signing him before July 1, when he officially becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Colorado paid a high price for Fleury's services. If Fleury doesn't sign a new contract with the Avs, that price will seem even higher. To get Fleury, Colorado had to give up two current team members: Corbet, who was a third-line player but has the potential to do more; and Belak, who could become a hard-nose defenseman if he stays away from injuries. The Flames will also receive a draft pick and future considerations. The draft pick will be a second rounder if the Avs don't re-sign Fleury; a first rounder if they do.

The future considerations could be the most important part of the deal as far as the Flames are concerned. The Avalanche reportedly offered Calgary one of four top prospects in the Colorado organization. All four were drafted this past year. The prospects are:

Martin Skoula, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound defenceman who was chosen 17th overall.
Robyn Regehr, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenceman who was chosen 19th overall.
Scott Parker, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right winger who was chosen 20th overall.
Ramzi Abid, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound right winger who was chosen 28th overall.

The Flames had 30 days from the time of the trade to choose the player they wanted. As of now, it looks like Calgary will take Regehr, who is described as an Adam Foote-type defenseman. Skoula, who is a teammate of Flames prospect Daniel Tkaczuk, is also a possibility. He has more offensive skills than Regehr, but is also solid defensively. If you haven't seen him in action yet, Parker is a future enforcer who has already seen action in the NHL. Abid needs work on his skating before he's to be considered a tremendous prospect.

No matter who the Flames get, he probably will not be able to take the place of Fleury. And for all intents and purposes, the prospect chosen probably won't play his career in Calgary.

Fleury didn't want to leave Calgary, but he explained that the business of the game forced him to. The Flames didn't want to trade Fleury, but they, as well, blamed the economics of the game. Inevitably, the Flames won't want to leave Calgary, but once again, economics will be to blame.

It is a sad sight for the National Hockey League, but Fleury's situation is just the tip of a Canadian iceberg that won't melt until small-market teams like Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa get pushed out of the game by the almighty American dollar.

LCS Hockey

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