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Flame Out The Stanley Cup chase could hinge on which contender acquires Calgary's diminutive star Theoren Fleury, a free agent-to-be who's on the block

Chaos reigned in the Fleurys' bungalow on a recent morning.
Beaux, almost two, was but one of several toddlers underfoot as
his parents, Theoren and Veronica, plus assorted relatives and
friends, loaded cars with the Fleurys' personal effects.

Haven't you heard? Theoren Fleury, the Flames' sprite of a right
wing and the NHL's most enticing piece of trade bait, has bought
a bigger, two-story house in the same Calgary suburb where the
Fleurys have lived in a modest place for three years. Says
Veronica, who's expected to deliver the couple's second child in
early April, "We needed more room."

Having peeked at the ultrasound, the Fleurys know that the baby
will be a girl. What they have no way of knowing is whether Theo
will be around when Veronica goes into labor or how many nights
he will spend in the new digs between now and the end of the
season. Fleury, who earns $2.4 million, becomes an unrestricted
free agent on July 1, at which time he may command more than $7
million a year--an amount far greater than the small-market
Flames are willing to pay. Rather than get bubkes for its only
marquee player, Calgary is likely to deal him before the March
23 trade deadline. In other words, now wouldn't be a good time
for Fleury to start regrouting the bathroom tiles.

If you are the general manager of a team with realistic Stanley
Cup aspirations, now is an excellent time to consider leasing
for the rest of this season the 5'6", 180-pound Fleury, a proven
scorer and defensive dervish known for taxing the patience of
his opponents and ratcheting up his play in the playoffs. It's
rare for a player of Fleury's talent and astonishing
durability--he has missed only seven games in 10 seasons despite
learning that he had Crohn's disease four years ago--to become
available for the stretch drive and the playoffs.

Fleury, a 30-year-old who grew up in Russell, Manitoba, was
averaging 76 points coming into this season, and his 65 points
(on 29 goals) through Sunday ranked him sixth in the league for
1998-99. But numbers only hint at what makes Fleury appealing.
He's fast, furious and fearless--which the shortest player in
the NHL, one who likes to mix it up in the corners and in front
of the net, had better be. "He plays with a chip on his
shoulder," says Boston Bruins coach Pat Burns. Fleury agrees:
"When you're my size, you're never finished proving yourself."

No one in the league puts on a better show, and we aren't just
talking about Fleury's often baroque scoring celebrations--who
can forget his sliding half the length of the ice on his knees
while pumping his fists after a playoff goal in overtime against
the Edmonton Oilers in 1991? Flames coach Brian Sutter reckons
that fewer than half a dozen players in the league can match
Fleury's "pure intensity and passion for the game." Fewer still
could not eat an apple off his head. Seldom has a player so
small been in a position to have such a large impact on the
NHL's second season.

"No question, he could put a team over the top," Burns said on
Feb. 11. The following night Burns could only stand behind the
bench and look dyspeptic as Fleury set up two goals in Calgary's
4-3 win over the Bruins. Despite coveting Fleury, Burns is
unlikely to coach him since Boston is one of the few clubs in
the league capable of squeezing a buck harder than Calgary.

Fleury's availability is all the more intriguing because the NHL
lacks a truly dominant team. Although they have the league's
best record, the Dallas Stars (35-10-9 at week's end) could use
more firepower. Will they deal for Fleury? The Stars know he can
create offense--he has racked up 40 points in 38 career games
against them. They know he's tough. On Dec. 7, after incurring a
split lower lip courtesy of a high stick by Dallas defenseman
Richard Matvichuk, Fleury was bleeding all over himself and his
jersey, but he wouldn't leave the ice until referee Mark
Faucette ordered him to the bench. (The league has a rule
prohibiting a skater from playing when he has a visible open
wound or even blood on his jersey.) As Fleury sat waiting for
the trainer to bring him a clean sweater, a fan in the stands at
the Saddledome doffed his own Fleury jersey, which was adorned
with autographs, and passed it to the Flames bench. When Fleury
spotted the signatures he started laughing.

Despite Fleury's toughness, Stars general manager Bob Gainey is
partial to the Montreal Canadiens' rugged Mark Recchi, another
star forward on the cusp of free agency who might be willing to
sign a long-term deal as part of a trade. Gainey is not the only
general manager turned off by Fleury's determination to test
free agency. Teams would prefer to trade for Fleury on the
condition that he sign a new deal before he hits the free-agent
market. Fleury doesn't care what a bunch of general managers
prefer. "I'm just playing by their rules," he says. For his
part, he would rather play in the West. That way, he would not
be too far from Josh, his 11-year-old son from a previous
relationship who also lives in Calgary and is, according to
Veronica, "a huge, huge part of our family."

That's encouraging news to the Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix
Coyotes and San Jose Sharks, and should give pause to the
Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers--Fleury
suitors all. Want a dark horse? Keep an eye on New Jersey.
Calgary general manager Al Coates has swung deals with Lou
Lamoriello, his Devils counterpart. For Fleury, however, the New
Jersey Turnpike would take some getting used to. After all, for
the last decade he has driven Calgary's somewhat less stressful
Deerfoot Trail to and from the rink. "Don't think I've had to
honk my horn once," he says.

Given his druthers, Fleury won't have to change his commute this
season. "I don't want to be a rent-a-player," he says. "If we
can get ourselves in the playoff race"--as of Sunday the Flames
were just three points out of the final postseason spot in the
Western Conference--"then why would they trade me?" Two reasons:
Even if Calgary qualifies for the playoffs for the first time in
three years, it will need an even greater miracle to reach the
second round. Also, if Coates fails to get something substantial
for Fleury (he's asking for a budding star in his early 20s), it
could cost him his job. That bothers Fleury, who feels that
Coates has been handcuffed in his trade and contract
negotiations by the Flames' unwieldy, nine-headed ownership
group of rich businessmen who are disinclined to look beyond the
bottom line.

Leaving Calgary will be painful for Fleury, a future Hall of
Famer, even though his fortune lies elsewhere. "These guys gave
me a chance when no one else would," he says of the Flames, who
selected him in the eighth round of the 1987 draft. "The biggest
piece of my heart is still in Calgary."

Unfortunately for Flames fans, the biggest piece of change lies

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GLENN JAMES SMALL WONDER The 5'6" Fleury bedevils foes at both ends of the ice.


Little Man, Big Gap

Over the last two seasons the Flames' 5'6" Theoren Fleury
(above), the NHL's shortest player, has stood head and shoulders
above his teammates in scoring. In 1997-98 he had 29 more points
than Cory Stillman, Calgary's No. 2 scorer. Through Sunday,
Fleury had a 30-point bulge over the Flames' runner-up so far
this season, Phil Housley, the greatest differential in the
league once again. Here are the widest disparities between
teams' leading scorers this season.

Team Leading scorer Next highest Diff.

Calgary Flames Theoren Fleury (65) Phil Housley (35) 30
Los Angeles Kings Luc Robitaille (57) Glen Murray (28) 29
Pittsburgh Penguins Jaromir Jagr (87) Martin Straka (58) 29
New York Rangers Wayne Gretzky (56) Two tied (37) 19
Ottawa Senators Alexei Yashin (65) Shawn McEachern (46) 19
St. Louis Blues Pavol Demitra (57) Al MacInnis (41) 16
Dallas Stars Mike Modano (59) Brett Hull (44) 15

Stats through Sunday

--David Sabino