March 1, 2001

How Easy It Is to Fall From Grace

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Salvation, comebacks, redemption, rescuing one’s fallen image in the fans’ eyes. All of the above are key motivations for a star player in the midst of a sub-par year. The dream of returning to blow every one out of the water, a la Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs in The Natural.

David Cone is praying for another season to erase the embarrassment from last year. Patrick Ewing paraded into Madison Square Arena two nights ago with the hope that he could prove himself in front of the very same fans that booted him out about ten months ago.

The NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL are peppered with “sports heroes” who are hoping for that one last great season to wipe away all the memories of the past, and go down in a blaze of glory. Michael Jordan eschewed the issue all together so not to embarrass himself. Nothing is worse than watching an aging star grasping for his former greatness.

One person seemingly accomplished the near impossible feat, rebounding from the edge of mediocrity tto the pinnacle of prominence — Theo Fleury.

Last year Fleury was supposed to bring the Rangers to the playoffs — oops. Fleury was a money player, an All-Star with the Calgary Flames, a small guy with a big heart. The 5’6″ Fleury responded to the pressure with his worse season by far, scoring just 15 goals for the entire year.

Then came the fairy tale that was too good to be true, the one that ESPN grabs on to and is supposed to restore faith in sports. Fleury found the net! He jumped out of from the role of overpaid underachiever, shed the chip on his shoulder and was leading the NHL in scoring. The turnaround culminated with his first start in his seventh All-Star game.

Unfortunately when things seem too good to be true, they usually are.

Yesterday, the Rangers organization announced that Fleury would be leaving the team indefinitely for substance abuse-related purposes. So the fairy tale has turned into a public relations nightmare.

Back when the trials of Mark Chmura, Ray Lewis, and Rae Carruth, SportsCenter touted Fleury’s rise from the ashes as a ray of hope in the morally depleted era of tainted athletics. But now, the story is as crooked as the toothless smile pinned on Fleury’s face.

Not even is providing Fleury with much sympathy. Hockey analyst Bill Clement announced that rumors involving Fleury and drugs have been circulating. Meanwhile the story displays the most thuggish, unattractive picture available of the troubled hockey player. The sports behemoth chose the mid-season picture, where every player shows the effects of multiple checks, trips, and fights. Front teeth missing, right eye discolored and swollen, and tufts of hair splayed in every direction, Fleury’s a little too disheveled to be a misfit but goofy enough not to be menacing. The website condemned Fleury as quickly as it embraced him.

So now the media has to reverse the effects of championing Fleury, the darling now turned evil gnome.

Of course the Ranger organization and head coach Glen Sather haven’t done anything to clarify the situation, but let the public assume since sports figures have usually met those lowered expectations. Of course if Clement is right, team management most likely knew of the drug infractions, but wouldn’t sacrifice losing the most potent scorer (30 goals and 74 points) while New York had a chance of post-season play. Now that Mark Messier’s promise of playoffs is all but broken, the team let Fleury go.

The real casualty of the situation is not the Rangers’ dashed playoff hopes. Even the most optimistic of fans could not believe that the Mike Richter-less team (26-32-4) — eight points behind the last post-season berth — warrants much hope. Nor will it be Fleury’s playing career that will suffer. The true victim will be his personal life.

Fleury’s life has gone full-circle. Having slipped from superstardom and climbed back, he has fallen once again. While his resurgence with the Rangers may have put him on the back page of the New York Post, it will be Fleury’s stay in the substance-abuse center that truly determines whether he can come back in life.

Archived article by Amanda Angel