Fleury was back on the ice with the NHLers for the first time Tuesday since he voluntarily entered an in-patient substance abuse and behavioural program on Feb. 28. The occasion was the start of a four day mini-camp for Team Canada.
And as he stepped onto the ice at the Father David Bauer Arena for the first practice, he took a deep breath and nervously toyed with his stick. "It felt good to be back but I was really nervous," said Fleury after head coach Pat Quinn put the 34 players through a brisk but light 45-minute workout. "Six months is a long time to be away from the game and when I left I did not know what was going to happen.
"I knew in the back of my mind I wanted to come back and play. I have enjoyed a great summer and I have taken care of things I needed to take care of and after today I feel I am ready to come back and see what I can do."
Fleury's day started when the NHL and the NHL Players' Association announced that the veteran had received permission to rejoin the New York Rangers when NHL training camps open next week.. There was one stipulation and that is Fleury must continue an obligation to comply with a prescribed treatment and aftercare program sponsored by the NHLPA and the NHL.
When Fleury asked for help to fight substance abuse, it marked the first significant absence of Fleury's career. Since his rookie campaign of 1988-89, he had never missed more than seven games in a season. At the time he entered the program, Fleury was enjoying his best season in five years, totalling 30 goals and 44 assists in 62 games.
Needless to say but everybody connected with the Canadian Olympic team was thrilled to see him back on the ice. "There are so many players in the NHL that you get to know. You have guys as great as Mario (Lemieux) and the elite players but there is always something about Theo that I always felt very special in the sense that I hated to play against him," said Team Canada executive-director Wayne Gretzky. "He was one of the most annoying players I ever played against but he was an incredible team guy. He played well under pressure and he plays any role a coach wants him to play.
"In life people go through tough times and he went through a tough time and he straightened life out. Nobody is perfect and we are really happy for him. He changed his life around and straightened himself out and I just think it will make him a better player than he was before. We expect him to bounce back and we hope he has a great year."
But Fleury wasn't the only member of Team Canada, and the Rangers for that matter, who was being carefully watched by the approximately 180 members of the media accredited for the camp. The other person who drew more than his share of attention was Eric Lindros, who was making his return to elite-level hockey for the first time since he suffered a concussion in May, 2000 during the Stanley Cup finals.
Like Fleury, Lindros did not look out of step one bit, and like his new teammate, it felt good to be back playing the game he loves. "I am thrilled to be here and I am looking forward to the four days of camp," said Lindros, who was captain of Team Canada at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Practices continue today, and head coach Pat Quinn definitely has a stacked roster to work with. There are six winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP, including three by Lemieux, along with three Norris Trophy winners are the top defenceman, four Lady Byngs for gentlemanly conduct, four Calder Trophy winners as the top rookie, two Selke Trophy winners as the top defensive forward and 10 Conn Smythe winners as the playoff MVP. Team Canada has a total of 29 Stanley Cup rings, and 23 players are former first-round draft picks, including five former No, 1 overall selections.
"Pretty impressive line-up," said Paul Kariya.