For Theoren Fleury, it was a return 10 years in the making — and a triumphant one at that.
Attempting to make a comeback at the age of 41, the popular yet troubled forward hit the ice with the Calgary Flames for the first time since 1999 and scored the shootout winner in a 5-4 pre-season victory over the New York Islanders at the Pengrowth Saddledome on Thursday.
"That was pretty exciting," he said. "It was fun, it was a fun game to be in."
As the capacity crowd of 19,289 chanted "Theo, Theo", Fleury scored on Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin with a forehand deke to send the fans into a frenzy.
"I have played in a lot of big hockey games before and this was one that was special for everybody that has been a fan of mine or cheered for me in the past," Fleury said. "The way my life has gone, it doesn't surprise me that it went to the shootout and I got a chance."
Asked if he knew what move he planned to make, Fleury replied: "No, you never do. At least, the good guys don't."
It marked Fleury's first taste of NHL action in six years and first pro hockey goal — and game — in three years.
"I've always been one of those guys who knows what to do on breakaways and I've had a flare for the dramatic as well. I wasn't nervous at all. Just went in and did what I do best." —Theoren Fleury
Flames goaltender David Shantz then forced Greg Moore to fire high and wide of the net — securing the win for Calgary and a special moment for Fleury.
"It was obviously special to have your name chanted like that," Fleury said. "It was fun to be back in the 'dome."
Flames head coach Brent Sutter had no problem in picking Fleury to take part in the shootout.
"It was pretty unanimous on the whole bench," Sutter said. "The players wanted him to shoot, too.
"It was the right thing to do. Why not."
'I thought he played OK'
Fleury, born in Oxbow, Sask., and raised in Russell, Man., has battled alcoholism, and was suspended 25 games in 2002 for violating the NHL's substance abuse policy and suspended indefinitely for a second offence in 2003.
The pint-sized pepperpot was reinstated last Thursday by the NHL, permitting him to resume a pro career that ended with him playing overseas three years ago.
Fleury tried to salvage his pro career with the Horse Lake Thunder of the North Peace Hockey League in 2005, and briefly with the Belfast Giants of the Elite Ice Hockey League in 2006.
He was offered a tryout last Saturday by the Flames, with whom he starred from 1988 to 1999.
"It was fun to put that jersey on," Fleury said. "When I walked in tonight and I saw it hanging up, I was quite emotional because I worked really hard to get here."
"It is a day-to-day process and we're taking it one day at a time," Sutter noted. "I thought he played OK."
Islanders forward Kyle Okposo was knocked senseless by Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who levelled him with an open-ice hit at centre ice. Pascal Morency promptly leaped over the boards to pursue Phaneuf and a minor melee ensured. Okposo lay prone on the ice more than 6 minutes before leaving immobilized on a stretcher. A CT scan showed he has a mild concussion, but he took the team flight to Saskatoon, where the Islanders are holding training camp.
"It was a clean hit. I stepped up and used my shoulder. You don't like to see guys get hurt but that is part of my job when the hits are there, to take them." — Dion Phaneuf
"That is part of Dion's game. When he sees that in the middle of the ice he has to use it. It is one part of his game that makes him a unique player." — Brent Sutter
"The hit completely changed the complexion of the game. We were down 3-1 at that point … the rink seemed to be tilted after that." — Theoren Fleury
'It took a while to get going'
Fleury received a roar of approval from the supportive Saddledome crowd in the second period, when he corralled a pass from Langkow and ripped a rising wrist shot that Islanders goaltender Martin Biron smothered.
Tied at 3-3 with Fleury serving a hooking penalty, Matt Moulson retrieved a loose puck from the lip of the crease and tucked it inside the right post for the go-ahead goal, his second on the night.
But Fleury was let off the hook four minutes later when David Moss tipped Olli Jokinen's point shot for a power-goal that knotted it 4-4.
"I thought I played OK," Fleury said. "It took a while to get going.
"As the game went on, I got more into the game. It was fun."
'I'm just thrilled'
Fleury was already three years removed from playing for the Chicago Blackhawks by the time he entered a substance abuse program sanctioned by the NHL and NHL Players' Association.
He will be monitored in the after-care phase of the program by Dr. Dave Lewis on behalf of the NHL and Dr. Brian Shaw for the NHLPA.
"My children were here, my lovely wife was here, my two brothers, my nieces, my nephews and those are the people who, today, are the most important people to me," Fleury said. "They have supported me through thick and thin.
"They have gone through the pain and suffering I have gone through as well. I'm just thrilled to have this opportunity."
Fleury ranks second on the franchise scoring list with 830 points, trailing Flames captain Jarome Iginla (851).
Fleury has registered 455 goals and 1,088 points in 1,084 NHL games over 15 NHL seasons with the Flames, Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers and Blackhawks.
He hoisted the Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989, and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.