The Fleming family recently lost a loving husband, father and a man who cared deeply. At the same time, the game of hockey lost a career coach who impacted countless careers, including mine. On March 25, 2013, Wayne Fleming lost his battle with brain cancer.
From 1985-87, "Flem" was my coach at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Turns out the U of M was a stepping stone for us both. Wayne went on to coach professionally in Europe before returning to coach the Lightning, the Islanders, the Coyotes, the Flyers and the Flames of the NHL. I signed with the Calgary Flames prior to my college graduation after spending two critical years under Wayne.
Playing for Wayne came at a pivotal time for me. Calgary had drafted me in 1985, but I left Calgary's camp that year because I was unsure if I wanted to play pro; I was really struggling with the whole idea of playing the enforcer role. So as I left the Flames, I reached out to an old junior buddy, Bobby (the Slob) Lowes, who was playing for Flem at the time. Long story short, I was a Bison by the spring semester of 1985.
It was obvious to me early on that Flem was a student of the game and a skilled teacher at the same time. He broke down our games and used NHL footage to show us things I hadn’t seen before; aspects of the game that weren't obvious to most players. Flem focused on the obscure details that, if applied, could significantly impact your game.
I have been asked the question many times and I always answer the same way. With all due respect to Bowman, Sutter, Keenan, Trotz and even Crisp, I learned more from Wayne Fleming than any other coach. The mark of a good coach comes when you can hear him in your head as you play. There were countless situations in a game where I’d recall what he expected me to do “right in that area in there.” He made a world of difference to my game, and Flem gave us "structure" as a group.
The punch line to this story comes after my two years under Wayne. Calgary had been keeping tabs on me and in 1987 they asked me back. I signed that summer and by 1990 I was an everyday NHLer. I am forever grateful to Wayne Fleming for providing the environment, the training and for being the kind of mentor that allowed me to succeed. More importantly, I am grateful that I was given an opportunity to tell him so before he passed.
May you rest in peace, Coach. You left our game much better than you found it. Perhaps by now you understand how many lives and careers you impacted for the better. You are missed.