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Monday, October 24, 2005
Updated: October 27, 12:42 PM ET
For now, Belfast is enough for Fleury

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

Admittedly, Theo Fleury didn't know much about Belfast, Northern Ireland, before he arrived.

"I knew the Titanic was built there,'' he said, "but I wasn't really worried since I was flying over and not taking a boat.''

Theo Fleury
Theo Fleury, who last played in the NHL with the Blackhawks, signed with Belfast in August.

He's certainly hit a few icebergs along the way, and at times seemed in peril of being sucked underneath the surface of the water by an icy current, never to be seen again. But move over Molly Brown, he's still afloat, still the Unsinkable Theo Fleury.

"It's good. Everything's good,'' he said from his new house, still full of unpacked boxes, in Belfast. "Not so different from home. Except the TV. There is no TV. Not unless you're mesmerized by watching Tony Blair give speeches.''

Fleury says he's got his act together. But he's said that before. He's engaged to a Winnipeg girl and a wedding date has been set for Aug. 19, 2006, in his hometown of Russell, Manitoba. He's pledging stability, sanity and dependability in this next phase of his hockey career, and his life.

Why Belfast?

"I wasn't doing anything,'' he said. "And, well, because someone asked."

In his first game at the Odyssey Arena against the Edinburgh Capitals, Fleury only scored three goals (his first on his first shift at the 24-second mark), added four assists and got into two brawls. Typical Fleury.

In a way, Ireland and Fleury make a lot of sense. At his furious best, he always did seem a type of demented leprechaun, full of fun and mischief and blarney. And with a Stanley Cup, Calder Cup, World Junior championship, Canada Cup and Olympic gold medal on his resume, arguably no one knows a better way to that pot 'o gold at the end of every rainbow.

A near-sellout crowd of 4,600 lapped it up. He may be off Broadway now and reduced to playing regional theatre, but as ever remains the consummate showman.

In four games, Fleury has racked up four goals and 11 assists, and the first-place Giants have gone 2-1-0-1.

"We're all pumped,'' said defenseman Todd Kelman, a Calgarian who grew up idolizing the wee man. "Everyone on the team. I don't think anyone here in Belfast really gets how big a deal this is. We try to explain it to them by saying 'It's like David Beckham coming to play for one of the local football teams.'

"That's the only way they can possibly understand. I mean, in his prime, he'd be making more money than everyone in our league put together. He's certainly the most famous player ever to come over here.''

And the 10-team British Elite Hockey League is in need of a revitalization.

It's fallen on hard times of late. The quality of play has tailed off. Teams have folded. Money has dried up. The Giants are a prime example. Players have been forced to take pay cuts in Belfast, and ticket sales have dropped.

That's why Calgary software developer Jim Yaworski brought Fleury overseas, after sinking $1.5 million into the Giants, after failing last season to purchase an existing Western Hockey League junior franchise. He may have been playing senior hockey for the Horse Lake Thunder in northern Alberta last season, but Fleury, never forget, was one of the finest talents, and arguably the most unique individual, of his era.

Yaworski's ties with Fleury go back to when the little fella was in his mid-teens and Yaworski coached a Western Canadian Under-17 select team.

He made the initial pitch seven months ago, wondering whether Fleury might enjoy playing hockey again in an environment far from the epicenter of the hockey world.

"I called [my fiancée] at work,'' Fleury recalled, "and asked her: 'Do you want to spend the winter in Belfast?' She said: 'Sure.'"

After a year in the Alberta senior loop, he jumped at the chance to compete at a marginally higher level.

"The league's a step [up] from what I was playing last year," he said. "But the refereeing is awful. After we pounded that one team in my first game, the next night [a 3-3 tie in Cardiff, Wales, against the aptly named Devils] it was tackle football.

"They should've been throwing flags instead of handing out penalties. Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.''

In a way, Ireland and Fleury make a lot of sense. At his furious best, he always did seem a type of demented leprechaun, full of fun and mischief and blarney. And with a Stanley Cup, Calder Cup, World Junior championship, Canada Cup and Olympic gold medal on his resume, arguably no one knows a better way to that pot 'o gold at the end of every rainbow. He still represents the battling underdog, perhaps more so now than ever after his very public battle with substance abuse.

Kelman is maybe more excited about Fleury's arrival than most. As a kid growing up in Calgary during the glory years, one of his proudest possessions was a Fleury No. 14 replica Flames sweater. Posters of the tiny terror were Scotch-taped to the bedroom wall. He camped out overnight at a mall to purchase tickets for Games 1, 2 and 5 of the 1989 Stanley Cup finals. He attended the celebratory parade, got a front-row seat at Olympic Plaza to honor the team and see the Stanley Cup, and once even stood in line at a local drugstore to get Fleury's autograph, which he reckons is still somewhere in his parents' basement.

"How many guys,'' he asked, "are lucky enough to get the chance to play with someone they idolized growing up?''

The glories of Calgary are long behind Fleury. More fresh in the public mind are the booze problems, the spectacular failures in Colorado and New York, and the infamous strip-club incident in Columbus while playing for the Blackhawks. His NHL career burst in the sky, giving off showers of sparks, and then petered out, like a Roman candle.

That. And, well, doesn't Belfast have a pub on every corner?

"I'm not worried,'' Yaworski said. "His girlfriend's there to help him. His teammates are there to help him. The organization's there to help him. And the town's there to help him. Everyone wants this to be a success.

"One of the reasons I got in touch with Theo in the first place is that I believe he's serious about getting his life back on track.''

It's early. But so far, so good.

"He's been phenomenal,'' Yaworski said. "And he certainly isn't doing it for the money. He's in our salary cap, of which the top end is about $1,000 U.S. a week. He's good for the team, he's good for our league and he's good for our young players, particularly our young British players.

"On the day we arrived, he flew to London and got in at 4:30 [a.m.], then the short flight to Belfast. At 8:30, he had two photo shoots at the airport, got to the rink at 10:15, practiced at 10:30, met his teammates and then had press obligations until 3 p.m. How he did it all without any sleep, I have no idea.

"The people here love him. I mean, how could you not cheer for Theo Fleury?''

The Irish could certainly take a big shine to a small, talented, driven, outspoken rascal like this one. Given some time, he might even considering changing his name to O'Fleury.

No, it's not the NHL. That, the big time, is a world not only an ocean away now. Given what Fleury has done, and knowing his insatiable inner competitiveness, it is enough for him to be a hockey-playing giant in Belfast?

"It's enough,'' he replied, "for today.''

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.