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  • Sunday, February 28, 1999

    Emotional Fleury finds new home with Avalanche

    By REG CURREN -- Canadian Press
     CALGARY -- Theoren Fleury couldn't stop the tears.
     The diminutive star winger was a cauldron of conflicting emotions Sunday as he tried to reconcile his devastation over leaving the Calgary Flames with the elation of joining the Stanley Cup-contending Colorado Avalanche.
     Fleury, the last remaining player from Calgary's Stanley Cup team in 1989, had hoped he could remain in the only NHL city he has ever called home.
     But it wasn't to be.
     The Flames couldn't afford to keep the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent and after months of speculation peddled him for an unremarkable package of players. The transaction becomes just the latest chapter of the small-market blues afflicting NHL teams, especially those in Canada.
     "The hardest thing about this was packing up all my equipment and saying goodbye, but on the other side it's a great opportunity for me and family, but I'm going to miss it here," said Fleury, breaking into sobs as he was comforted by his pregnant wife Veronica.
     "I've had so many hard things to go through in my life, this is one of the toughest for sure."
     Heading to Calgary are forward Rene Corbet, defenceman Wade Belak and future considerations -- in this case the right to select within the next 30 days a player not on Colorado's roster. Also going with Fleury to Denver is winger Chris Dingman, whom the Avalanche immediately assigned to Hersey of the AHL.
     Calgary also gets to keep the compensatory pick, likely a second-rounder in 2000, it would have received for Fleury signing as a free agent elsewhere.
     If the Avalanche re-sign Fleury, the Flames will also get a first-round pick in 2000.
     Fleury said the trade caught him off guard -- even though he had been bracing for it -- and he acknowledged he was saddened that yet another Canadian-based star was leaving a small market for greener pastures.
     "We had come so far as a team here in Calgary over the past couple of years. I didn't think they would mess with the chemistry of the team, the playoffs were a reality....
     "But when I heard it was Colorado the first thing that came to my mind was Stanley Cup."
     The timing of the trade is somewhat puzzling, considering the Flames -- largely on the back of Fleury's outstanding performance this season -- have clawed their way into the Western Conference playoff race and sit just two points behind the San Jose Sharks for eighth place.
     But Calgary general manager Al Coates, describing the trade as one of the toughest things he has ever had to do, said the move does not mean the Flames are waving the white flag on the 1998-99 season.
     "I discussed the fact with the players that we are in a business here. I told the players this is your team now and in no way shape or form do we take any less view on our commitment to be in the playoffs and do some damage when we get there."
     He said it'll be up to veterans like defenceman Steve Smith to work with youngsters like Jarome Iginla to take the Flames into the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-96 season.
     Coates didn't want to lose the five-foot-six, 180-pound Fleury to free agency and receive nothing in return as happened with the Edmonton Oilers and goaltender Curtis Joseph last year.
     Joseph bolted to Toronto for $6 million US a season after Edmonton opted not to trade him last season and disrupt their run at a playoff spot.
     Facing a similar dilemma this spring is the Montreal Canadiens. Two of their top players, Mark Recchi and Vincent Damphousse, become unrestricted free agents in the off-season.
     The Fleury trade ended months of speculation and comes just a little over a week after the fan favourite became the Flames' all-time leader in points, surpassing defenceman Al MacInnis.
     In 791 career games, Fleury scored 364 goals and added 466 assists for 830 points.
     Fleury has 30 goals and 39 assists in 60 games this season. He's likely to command at least $7 million US a season in his next contract, a figure the Calgary Flames couldn't even come close to matching.
     "It's fair to say this wasn't our first choice, we wanted to sign Theo," said Coates.
     "But frankly and simply it was something we couldn't do here in Calgary, we can't pay that kind of salary for one player on our team. It's impossible."
     There are no guarantees Fleury will sign in Colorado either, but his agent Don Baizley represents several Avalanche players -- including Fleury's longtime friend Joe Sakic.
     It's also a city that suits Fleury. It's in the West and in many respects is simply a larger version of Calgary.
     "This was an amazing opportunity that we couldn't let go by," said Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix.
     "Theo Fleury is an exciting player who will bring great energy to our club. We were not the only NHL club interested in this type of player. We were able to make this deal mainly because of the depth in our organization."
     The trade immediately makes the Avalanche a serious Stanley Cup contender.
     Colorado (30-22-8), in first place in the Northwest Division, adds Fleury to an already dangerous offensive group that includes Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Adam Deadmarsh, Claude Lemieux and Valeri Kamenski.
     Corbet, 25, has eight goals and 14 assists in 53 games this season. Belak, a 22-year-old prospect, has no points and is minus-2 in 22 games with the Avalanche this season.
     Belak was assigned to Calgary's American Hockey League affiliate in Saint John, N.B.


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