Old dogs, new tricks
I’m going to assume that you’ve seen the highlights. The most common comment I had after it happened was “it was just like something out of a movie.”
Yet, it’s preseason. I’m pretty sure no one in the ’Dome cared. And I’m pretty sure 5’6 Theoren Fleury didn’t care either. A few years removed from the NHL and some hard times behind him, the 41-year-old gets the ultimate in retribution: the winning goal in a shootout against the Florida Panthers. Again, it was preseason. But it was still a sight to see and something Flames fans (and Fleury) probably won’t forget anytime soon.
This has been a trend we’ve seen in the last few years, guys coming out of retirement to play professional sports (sometimes returning multiple times ala Brett Favre). Even in the NHL, look no further than Claude Lemieux, who tried a comeback with San Jose last season. Players like Fleury and Lemieux come under heavy scrutiny, with many wondering if the game has passed them by.
The list of hockey players who played into their 40’s is fairly long. Joe Sakic, Gary Roberts, Chris Chelios, Mark Recchi and Brendan Shanahan just to name a few. The key is to not hold your expectations over top of these players’ heads (insert short joke here). Can Fleury return to the Theo circa 1991 where he had 51 goals and 104 points? We can hope but it would definitely be an uphill battle. Can he become a presence in the locker room, someone who provides leadership by going all-out every shift? Absolutely. There’s probably a reason why he had an “A” or “C” on his jersey in his first tenure with the Flames. If he can contribute in that way, he’s won, gaining back what he came to do in the first place.
What is it that makes these comeback players fail? Perhaps it was the expectation that they could return to their old selves. Lemieux had already been on a heavy decline. In 2002-2003, he had 20 points in 68 games. He came back in San Jose to post one assist in 18 games. Interestingly enough, Theo’s last semi-full season was also 2002-2003, where he posted 33 points in 54 games and had some pretty good seasons prior to that. The “new” NHL also favours the smaller players.
So while some say this is a “sad attempt at past glories,” a comeback by any athlete most certainly depends on the player and how they manage to cope with the fact that they are returning to a league now dominated by players who probably watched them with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on their lunch buckets.
The key for fans is to enjoy it, take it as it is, and don’t hold these players on the same pedestal they were held on in their prior lives. If all else fails, it gives you one more reason to break out those hideous retro jerseys that are five sizes too small but still feel the same way they did when you first tried them on.
Joe McFarland is the arena host for the Medicine Hat Tigers and the News/Sports Director of 102.1 The Lounge in Medicine Hat. He’s been an NHL fan and follower since God was a child.