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DRAFTING THEO

Initially drawing criticism, selecting Fleury with the 166th pick in '87 turned out to be one the Flames' biggest draft successes

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

By Round 8, late on the evening of June 13, 1987, the stragglers left on the draft floor of Joe Louis Arena were tired. Out of sorts. Ties had mysteriously come undone. 

A one-day, 12-round, 252-pick marathon.

The names, the faces, the affiliations of expectant kids had long ago begun to blur together.

"When they finally announced my name, I heard that Al MacNeil threw his pen across the draft table in disgust,'' laughs Theoren Fleury.

"'Not another (bleepin) jockey!'

"Funny, Al became one of my biggest boosters. But everyone was drafting bigger players in those days. That was just the way it was. Particularly with Calgary.

"I didn't fit the mould at all.

"Anybody my size …"

Through the early years of Flames selecting lore, the organization always seemed to unearth a gem hidden somewhere in the further recesses of the draft.

Brett Hull in the sixth round, for instance. Or Hakan Loob and Gary Suter in the ninth.

But the idea that an eighth-round pick, 166th overall, would go on to lift the Stanley Cup and then wind up the second highest-scorer in franchise history?

Preposterous. 

Even given Calgary's excellent late-round batting average.

From his home on Brentwood Bay, just outside of Victoria, the man most responsible for making Theo Fleury a Flame, Ian McKenzie, is happy to talk about 1987.

Everyone in hockey circles back then knew Ian. A former RCMP officer, he went by the nickname Deputy Dawg, co-ordinator of scouting for the organization that, at the time, put the most resources and manpower into bird-dogging junior prospects and free-agent possibilities.

One of his domains happened to be the Western Hockey League.

"My biggest fight was within our own group,'' relates McKenzie, closing in on three decades later. "Nobody was on my side about Theo Fleury. I mean, nobody. 

"But I kept telling Cliff: 'I go watch Moose Jaw to see this guy or this guy or that guy, whether it's on the road or back in Moose Jaw, and I can't take my eyes off this other guy. He's the best player on the ice, every night, by a country mile.'"

He was also 5-foot-nuthin' and weighed in around 155 pounds with an anvil nestled in each pocket.

The preceding winter, Fleury had only chalked up 61 goals and 129 points for the Moose Jaw Warriors, fifth best in the Western League.

Yet nobody wanted him. No calls. No courting. Not a word.

"My expectations?'' Fleury recalls. "Pretty low. None, actually. The first year I was eligible I didn't get drafted, right?

"So I was at home in Russell on draft day that summer. Certainly not expecting anything. I can't remember what time it was when the phone rang. Late.

"Anyway, Ian called and he was like: 'We drafted you.' And I was like: 'Wow.' I was pretty excited.

"Today, teams know everything about every player. What time they get up in the morning. What time they brush their teeth before they go to bed at night.

"Back then …

"Without Ian, I probably would've wound up being a free agent playing in Europe. I thought my best-case scenario would be to get an tryout (with an NHL team) and maybe play in the minors.

"But Ian kept bugging Cliff. And Cliff was like: 'No way. We don't want this guy.'

"God, I can't imagine how many times I'd talked to Ian that year. He was always there with good advice, telling me he was in my corner, that he'd go to bat for me.

"Then I guess they decided I'd be a good draw in Salt Lake."

That was precisely the reasoning behind McKenzie's argument to GM Cliff Fletcher - Calgary's International Hockey League affiliate in Utah, the Golden Eagles.

To that end, he talked up not only Fleury's abundant abilities but his innate entertainment value. The size, the feistiness, that outrageous way around a quote.

"I told Cliff he'd fill the building,'' recalls McKenzie. "He was a little p--pot, a real handful. This guy, I told him, was born to sell tickets.

"So Cliff and I had private agreement. He told me: 'At the right time, in the later rounds, give me a nudge. You'll get your guy.'

"Cliff never interfered - never - but I guess he trusted me enough on that, so - and I'll always remember this - our turn came around and he announced to everyone: 'This is Ian's and my pick.' Theo Fleury.

"I thought 10 scouts at that table were going to hemorrhage."

Calgary's first-round selection that protracted draft day had been left winger Bryan Deasley. Followed, in order, by: Stephane Matteau, Kevin Grant, Scott Mahoney, Tim Harris, Tim Corkery, Joe Aloi, Peter Ciavaglia.

And then, only then …

Just goes to show.

The general reaction ranged from incredulity to hilarity.

"Next to our table is Philadelphia's,'' McKenzie recalls. "They had an assistant manager then named Garry Darling. A little --pot himself. And he's yapping at me: 'Hey, Ian? Where's this guy gonna play? Where's Fleury gonna play?' Really giving it to me. He knew I was high on Fleury.

"So I lean right across the Philadelphia table, threatening to kick the crap out of Garry Darling. I really wanted to pop him.

"Bobby Clarke laughed about that for many years."

Turns out, Fleury went on to captain Canada at the world junior championships and, following Moose Jaw's season, help Salt Lake claim the Turner Cup championship.

By New Year's Day 1989 he'd been called up to the big club.

And the rest, as is oft said, is history

"You've got to have people backing you,'' says Fleury now. "I was lucky to have people like Ian, Cliff and Al MacNeil and (Salt Lake coach) Paul Baxter. Those guys believed in me.

"Watching the draft the last 30 years, being a part of it, there are guys picked in the top 10 who don't ever play in the league.

"So I don't think it's really about the number. It's about the opportunity. The rest is up you."

Closing in on three decades after one of the most vital draft selections in franchise annals, the man who pushed hard to take a chance on a feisty bantamweight no one else had considered is rightly owed a certain degree of satisfaction.

"I remember a lot of people on that draft floor laughing the day we took Theo Fleury,'' reminisces Ian McKenzie.

"A couple years later, they weren't laughing so hard."

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