A birthday tradition I had to let lapse when I got too big involved firing up a VHS copy of Youngblood as soon as my watch blinked midnight. If you’re unfamiliar, Youngblood is an ’80s cult classic about junior hockey. Patrick Swayze plays the mentor character who’s short on talent but long on spine. Rob Lowe stars as the titular Youngblood, a wee playmaker, all fine bones and flair until he learns What It Takes.
The movie’s arc goes: Youngblood is the most talented guy on the ice, a surefire NHLer. His problem is he’s real little; pluggers are forever pushing him around. But first-act Youngblood refuses to fight back — he just wants to score goals! Eventually, several ancillary characters impress upon him how he’ll never make The Show if he “plays small.” Next come the overlong montages of Rob Lowe shadowboxing in barns. Then, at last, Youngblood proves he’s a hockey player, not a small hockey player, when he starts stick-swinging and fist-fighting after scoring the championship goal.
The best part, though — the part that’s been screen-printed on T-shirts and parroted as quasi-ironic salutation — is when Swayze hoists a tequila shot and says, “Thank god there is still a sport for middle-sized white boys.” To this I’d silently raise both fists. Then I’d go back to work on the bagged loaf of raisin bread in my lap, stoking a huge new hunger, me leaning against the shuttered footrest of my father’s Larson-model La-Z-Boy, the one sized expressly for short people, because if I sat on it my knees would be all up in my face.
In their final year of junior hockey, Joe Sakic and Theoren Fleury split the 1988 Western League scoring title with 160 points apiece. Sakic was then drafted 15th overall. Fleury was selected 151 picks later, in the eighth round.1 Draft wonks went by a truism then, and they go by it now: “You can’t teach size.” All else equal, a larger goalie covers more net, a larger defenseman has a greater sphere of influence, and a larger forward is stronger on the puck. By virtue of his genetic inheritance, a big, skilled winger who fails to produce offensively at the NHL level can still become a big, defensive winger. A bitsy winger doesn’t have that luxury. As the scout who drafted Brian Gionta2 admitted, “Personally, [we] would rather have a good big guy than a good small guy.” In other words, the small guy must prove that he can play; the big guys need only show they can’t.
Which is why this year’s scoring champion, Martin St. Louis, was never drafted. It’s not as though St. Louis had been some no-talent duster who stayed rooted to the bench, separating the forwards from the defensemen like a grocery stick, until one day he got his shot and suddenly bloomed. He’d been a three-time nominee for college hockey’s Heisman. He was and is really quite good. This was his second scoring title, and, at 37, he’s the oldest to win one. Yet the awards only affirm the conventional wisdom: St. Louis is an aberration, an exception that proves the rule. He succeeds in spite of being 5-foot-8.
The junior who shared the Western League scoring title this season, Nic Petan, is a full inch taller than St. Louis. But Petan isn’t expected to be a first- or even a second-round choice. He isn’t considered a top-10 prospect in his own league. Most likely, come draft day, he’ll fall and fall until one bored executive gets on his pound-puppy tip and decides that, damn it all, there’s something about this pipsqueak that makes him OK to take home.
That’s what happened when the Calgary Flames called Theo Fleury’s name on June 13, 1987. The nearby table of Philadelphia Flyers executives burst into laughter. Their assistant general manager asked a Calgary scout, “Where’s this guy going to play?” The scout leaned over, held a fist under the assistant GM’s nose and said, “A little short-ass bastard like you shouldn’t be talking.”
Theo Fleury was my favorite hockey player when I was growing up. Here was a guy an inch or two taller than my dad, the only All-Star who might be of distant relation. Not only did he seem to whir through the legs of bestriding defensemen, insurgent, on his way to score goal after goal — he also brooked no shit.
Behind the play he would slash Achilles, give a nice spear along the glass. If an opponent came at him, he would pike his stick and dare the challenger to come through it. When the action was whistled dead, he’d crane his neck and chirp at goons he really had no business giving the red-ass. I’d watch him on the TV screen and mold my mouth, trying to feel out his words. In these moments, Fleury’s brows would open up and away like launch silo doors. His eyes showed a horseshoe of sclera above the green irises, a crazy amount of white. And he would nod nonstop, agreeing wholeheartedly with whatever the big guy was saying — couldn’t wait for it, in fact, the mutually assured destruction.
Theo Fleury is part French, part Cree, 5 feet 6 inches tall. He spent his childhood in Russell, Manitoba, a moony snowscape of 1,500, with his alcoholic father and bedridden, depressive mother. His time he bided at the rink. “It was like I belonged somewhere for the first time,” he said of discovering hockey. “For me, it wasn’t a fantasy. It’s not like I dreamed of getting in the NHL; I was getting ready to go into the NHL.”
An imp on the ice even then, Fleury was sent to a nearby hockey school after neighbors and family friends raised the money. There, he met a coach who told him he had the talent to make the NHL in spite of his size. Later, when Fleury was in his mid-teens, the same coach recruited him onto his major-junior team in Winnipeg. In junior hockey, Fleury realized, “I had to protect myself, and the best way to do that was to have people believe I was crazy. This was my competitive advantage. I didn’t have size, but I was volatile. Teams found out that they could beat the shit out of me and I would not back down. I made the choice to live by the sword.”
Fleury roomed with a billet family, but his coach demanded he stay overnight with him two or three times a week. These nights, Fleury would wrap himself with his blanket as tightly as possible and cry himself to sleep. “He’d wait until the middle of the night, and then he’d crawl around the room in the dark on his hands and knees,” Fleury wrote in his autobiography. “He had the blinds duct-taped to the windows so no light could get in. It was the same every time. He would start massaging my feet and I wouldn’t move, pretending to be asleep. He would try to come up higher, but with that blanket wrapped so tight, he couldn’t get at me. [He] convinced me that, if not for him and his help, I would not be going to the NHL. As far as I was concerned, the reason for my whole existence was to make it to The Show. It was all I had.”
Years after he was suspended indefinitely by the NHL for violations of its substance abuse program, Fleury came forward with allegations that he had been sexually abused by his junior coach 150 times over a two-year period.
When I was 8, after Fleury had recorded his second 100-point NHL season, I sent away for a life-size poster of him. Along one edge of the poster was a rule by which you could measure your growth. My notches on it were regular if closely spaced until the period between my senior year of high school and my sophomore year of college. That’s when I had growth spurts and finally crested the thing.
The reason I shot up was a mild case of Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue. Long story short, I retained my small-person core but wound up with taffied limbs and thin joints that waggle through all 360 degrees of motion. Also, eventually, my aorta will weaken and dilate, and time or a hard blow might cause my heart to stop.
Accordingly, I’m trapped in that juvenile stage when one feels as though he’s a tiny pilot berthed inside his gawky vessel.3 My shit’s all out of proportion. My hands never grew, so they’re furtive-looking. My feet did, but they’re a hindrance, dryland flippers. I don’t believe I ever relearned how to walk correctly.4 When I glimpse my reflection in storefronts and subway windows, I’m astonished — I’m taller than people! I can’t help but continue to see from a truncated point of view.
Popular misconception has it that Napoleon was short. He was not. The confusion can be traced to the British press of that era, who lampooned Napoleon by depicting him as tiny in cartoons. In fact, Napoleon stood 5-foot-6, a good three imperial inches taller than average back then.
Which is interesting, because in 1908 a psychoanalyst named Alfred Adler based his theory of the inferiority complex, a.k.a. the Napoleon complex, a.k.a. short-man syndrome, on his supposition that Napoleon thirsted for power and conquest and was in general the Western world’s dread retributive agent all because his ass was short.
According to Adler, Napoleon was short and thus felt physically and spiritually inadequate. He compensated for this feeling of inadequacy by inventing a goal — a world where he had power, respect, puissance — and directing his every effort to its realization. He was very successful in his pursuit of this goal, for a time. But, as his life made clear, pursuit is one thing, overpursuit something else entirely.
The Napoleon complex is not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It says there’s no empirical evidence suggesting that shortness correlates with aggressiveness or any other behavioral anomaly. Nowadays, psychologists consider the Napoleon complex a social stereotype, the kind of thinking that lives on through post hoc rationalizations like, “He was a little ball of hate, of course he was, that poor, tiny man.”
Although a Calgary scout told him he would’ve been every team’s no. 1 pick had he been three inches taller, Fleury was ultimately chosen by the Flames because the organization assumed he’d be a good draw for their minor league affiliate in Salt Lake City. A feisty sideshow, not much more. But then he scored 37 goals and 37 assists in his first 40 professional games, and the slumping Flames called him up. He put up 34 points in their final 36 regular-season tilts. In the playoffs, he was slotted on the bottom lines alongside hatchet men and scrappers. Teams that underestimated him quickly discovered he was a scourge on the forecheck and a bane in the extralegal scrums that followed every whistle. “My anger made me dangerous,” he wrote. “When you’re raging and you have absolutely no fear, you can do a lot of damage. That quality would really become a part of who I was on the ice.” Fleury slew-footed and cackled and dove willingly into the net mouth Thermopylae. He chipped in three game-winning goals en route to his first and only Stanley Cup.
I still think about Fleury a lot, obviously. He would have thrived during this lockout-shortened season:5 a gauntlet of pressure-filled, attritional contests that were most often won or lost on special teams.
Fleury was an outstanding penalty killer. He seemed most in his element then, trapped in his own end, chasing the puck as it skirted the boards, the anxiety mounting, the carrot he was after just out of reach.
He was in fact so good at this kind of tweaky pursuit that I came to suspect he had a Fleury of his own. An abridged little fucker who never gives a moment’s rest. Frets you, bird-dogs you, forces you to do things you didn’t think yourself capable of, and do them at speed. He’s exhausting. When he’s not in your face, his strides are shushing right behind you. He goads you with his stick.
Yes, I’ve been reflecting on Fleury. In my mind he’s still taking a regular shift, playing with prickly intensity, burning like hell.
I am the tallest member of my family, living or dead. I stand at 5-foot-9, which puts me half an inch under the national average for males. We’ve had one portrait taken, my family. I was 14, my sisters 16 and 18, my parents on the windward side of middle age, the grandfolks hanging on. Last chance together and all that. We drove down to Sears in our funereal best. We ordered ourselves in front of a slate curtain. We stood there clutching one another for a minute and a half. Then the photographer, who had been shielded behind a giant plastic clown face, addressed us through its toothless grin: “One a y’all need to step forward, because y’all the same damn size.” My father and I refused to stand on phone books. Thus pictured, we looked like an intergenerational police lineup called in for a crime a fancy dwarf committed.
As a clan, we are pygmoid. The women aren’t fazed by this. The men, however: Smallness becomes us. One of my grandfathers, a machinist and a saint, really, he sometimes behaved as though the membrane separating his self from the outside world was more tightly conscribed than it ought to be. Whenever he thought someone might permeate it, he decked them, or pulled a knife.6 He did not much care for his children’s abbreviated fame as the Florida State Circus’s Rolla Rolla Romanchucks.
About his stature my other grandfather was more resigned, albeit in a strangely appealing way, as though he’d been spiritually foot-bound. A favorite story was how his son, my father, once confided to him on an all-clay diamond, “I’m a little worried about my size, but I think I can become a major league baseball player.” My dad was a great ballplayer; in most tellings of this story, he’d just teed off on future All-Star Dougie Corbett when they both were teens in Sarasota. He had the mind for the game for sure. But my grandfather’s response was, “Start running as fast as you can.” Then he outran his son, my father, backward, laughing in his face all the way.
My father had in his attitude some of both my grandfathers’. Rationalizing a kerfuffle in a subterranean line at Six Flags Over Georgia, he screamed: “Guys like me, in Vietnam, they used to hold us by our ankles and dip us in the tunnels! Who but little turds do you think get sent in to flush people out? What do you think that does to you?” Another time I watched him slide into a seat on a bus that was bracketed by two spectacularly fat men, saying, “In survival school, I listened to Jackson lose his shit in the solitary box next to mine. Tried to talk him down. I was comfortable, though. Could’ve made a goddamned nest in there.”
A nickname that haunted him through junior high school, high school, the military, college, and the workplace was “Brucey-Wucey.” He refused to buy boys’ sizes and so gave all new pairs of pants to my mother to hem. In crowds, he puffed his chest and fixed his face but walked too fast to be called assured. He had about him a forest-floor anticness, not like he was harried but like he sensed he was about to be. And he measured himself by the tape of a world that he thought looked upon him with amused contempt and pity. “You know what you’re allowed to be when you’re under 5-foot-5?” he once asked me. “A clown or a crazy person.”
When I started inching north of 5-foot-4, something about my relationship with my father changed. I’d find him sizing me up with a grin and an intoxicated glint in his eyes. During small arguments, he’d remind me: “I’ve got reach enough to shove one up your ass, believe me.” Under the rim in our driveway, he’d post up on me while trash-talking my heart condition, my arms up like Huh?, his pickax elbows chipping away at my unsteady foundation. It was around this time that I gave up Youngblood, as I realized I had become my family’s Goliath.
The one thing I could do that made up for my size,” Fleury wrote in his autobiography, “was accelerate off a dime.” He was so quick. Not fast — he lacked that extra gear — but quick. There’s a difference between speed and quickness. Speed is something you’re born with, a gift. Quickness is a habit you pick up, to cope.
Defensemen played Fleury as though he could be waved away like a bit of dander. But when he accelerated with the puck, they had to back up, flat-footed, and try to keep him at bay with sweeping reach. Once Fleury got inside their stick checks, that reach became a disadvantage. His conception of space was just different.7 His size allowed for him, as the cliché goes, to stickhandle in a phone booth. His short arms could hash the puck in half the area of your typical forward. Choosing then to simply shoulder him down was a mistake: After having been backed up by Fleury, big defensemen needed a split second to stop skating in reverse, shift their weight, and stride into him — and by then Fleury had skipped past. Regardless, his center of gravity was so low that trying to knock him off his feet was like trying to knock over a bottom-weighted blow-up punching bag. And when he reached the front of the goal, forget it, you needed a butterfly net to restrain him.
The big knock on Fleury was his penchant for committing bewildering penalties at key junctures in games. Such was his style of play. “I had always taken retaliation penalties,” he wrote, “which were usually bad for the team but necessary for my survival. I was unrelenting. If I hit a big guy and he whacked me back, hoping I’d learn my lesson, I would come back even harder. I was ferocious. I had to be … If I let one guy take me out without doing anything about it, the next guy would be standing in line behind him. So I made no exceptions, even when the game was on the line. I couldn’t.”
Fleury was what hockey people call an agitator. As agitator, his MO went: Slash an opponent once, and the opponent would shake it off or else try to sell it to the referee. Slash him again, and the opponent would slash back, antagonism begetting antagonism. Slash him and his teammates at every turn, and they had no choice but to respond to Fleury as he needed them to. They came at him from all directions. They rode him into the boards with their elbows and their sticks high. They hated him, and they were unforgiving. Therefore did Fleury re-create the game in his own twisted image. The only possible style of play was one that had been hewn to a needle point.
By 2001, Fleury had twice entered the NHL’s substance abuse program. Of this time and the time preceding it, he wrote things like: “The night before we left, I called the Molson rep and said, ‘I need beer.’ … So we picked up twelve flats of twenty-four. We also picked up a Texas mickey — one of those 66-ouncers of whisky — and I found a source who sold me a bag of weed the size of a toddler.”
He also wrote: “I just stayed in that room and let my brain go swimming in Paxil, coke, two six-packs and a twenty-sixer of Grey Goose.”
And: “I was torn between Drea, the New York stripper I had been seeing at the end of my marriage, and Steph, the stripper in Albuquerque.”
And: “I knew I was a full-blown alcoholic drug addict.”
In 2002, he was earning $7 million a year playing for the New York Rangers. He approached his stint in the league’s biggest market as “a challenge, an opportunity to shove it up somebody’s ass.” He claimed that during his three years in the city, he failed 13 consecutive drug tests but was not suspended by the league because he was a leading scorer.
Come 2003, he was involved in a free-for-all with the bouncers at a gentleman’s club in Columbus, Ohio. He was by then playing for the Chicago Blackhawks. After the incident, the Blackhawks placed him on waivers. No team claimed him. That offseason, he was suspended again for substance-abuse violations. He never played another game in the NHL.
Theo Fleury appeared in 1,084 regular-season NHL games, scored 1,088 points, and was assessed 1,840 minutes in penalties. The only players in NHL history with as many points and penalty minutes are Brendan Shanahan (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) and Mark Messier (6-foot-1, 210 pounds). Fleury spent 31 hours, or about 93 games’ worth of playing time, in the penalty box. Some might call such behavior self-destructive.
“The secret is that if you show the tiniest clue that you are intimidated or afraid,” Fleury wrote, “you are finished.”
His relationship with his teams’ fans was such that one night, when he was sent off the ice to replace a bloodied sweater, someone in the stands removed and threw down a Fleury replica jersey so he wouldn’t miss his shift.
His relationship with other teams’ fans was such that one night, as the crowd at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum chanted “Crackhead! Crackhead!” at him, he slapped his bicep in vulgar salute after scoring the game-winning goal.
It was alleged that after getting ejected from a game against San Jose, Theo Fleury broke the rib of mascot S.J. Sharkie in an altercation in a tunnel off the ice.
In 2004, in New Mexico, at dawn one day, Fleury “ran out into the middle of the scrub, screaming at the universe, ‘Fuck you, fuckin’ asshole-son-of-a-bitch. I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore. Don’t give me any more shit!’” He drove to a pawnbroker and paid him $5,000 for a pistol and one bullet. He returned to his home, loaded the gun, and put it in his mouth. “I sat there forever, shivering so hard the barrel was bouncing off my teeth. How did it taste? It tasted lonely.” He did not pull the trigger. “It’s not as if I’d felt this sudden urge to live. I still felt like shit and wished I were dead. I think that’s why, after I ran outside and chucked the gun into the desert, I was screaming at the universe like a madman.”
What we cherish as drive or will, the psychoanalyst Adler considered “but a tendency in the service of the feeling of inadequacy.” Adler believed that every one of us feels inadequate in some way. We can’t help it, we picked it up when we were young. It doesn’t even matter whether we really were inferior or not. It’s simply the nature of this place to make us feel small. Then what happened was we learned ambition, how to pursue a grander future. We thought up some goal. We thought, It’ll all stop once I grow up, once I make the NHL, once I get published, once I take over the world. This goal, we ordered our whole lives around it. And we strove, relentless.
“[Your] goal is so constructed that its achievement promises the possibility either of a sentiment of superiority, or an elevation of the personality to such a degree that life seems worth living,” Adler wrote. “It is this goal which gives value to our sensations, which links and coordinates our sentiments, which shapes our imagination and directs our creative powers, determines what we shall remember and what we must forget.”
This was what made Theo Fleury so inspiring to watch. Through sheer force of will, he shoved it up everyone’s ass. Even in the twilight of his career, his Hall of Fame stature long since achieved, he played as if proving something. He was fired by a deathless engine he had to keep stoking, and this was also what damned him.
Alfred Adler: “So many people are convinced that their ambition, which might more appropriately be called vanity, is a valuable characteristic because they do not understand that this character trait constantly dissatisfies a human being, and robs him of his rest and sleep.”
Theo Fleury: “All was perfect in my world, and for me that was a problem. Because I had built my life on being the underdog. Being the one who said, ‘I’ll show you.’ But all I knew how to do was manage the fight — once I’d won it, once I was at the top, I didn’t have a clue. The only place I felt good when I was sober was on the ice.”
After the NHL, Fleury joined the Horse Lake Thunder, a senior amateur hockey team that played out of the Horse Lake First Nation reservation in Alberta. They failed to win the senior amateur championship, the Allan Cup.
He joined the Belfast Giants and was voted 2006 Player of the Year by the British Ice Hockey Writers Association.
He joined the Calgary Vipers minor league baseball team in 2008 and played a few games as a utility fielder.
He formed a seven-member country-and-western band, singing lead.
He filmed a pilot for a reality show about his concrete business called Theoren Fleury: Rock Solid. No network picked it up.
And six years after his last NHL game, finally sober, he petitioned for and was granted reinstatement into the league. He accepted a tryout offer with the Flames. At 41, he recorded four points in four preseason games but was cut from the roster.
The other hockey truism about size is this: “There’s no such thing as small players, only players who play small.” “Playing small” means playing equanimously, honestly, like the player you might be if you didn’t feel impelled to skate with the all-or-nothing fearlessness of a junkie looking for his fix.
In a recent NHL draft, the team I root for picked Rocco Grimaldi (5-foot-6, 160 pounds). One Hockey Prospectus writer reported, “The most common phrase I hear in reference to Rocco Grimaldi when I talk to scouts usually goes along the lines of, ‘If only he was 5’11″, then he’d go first overall.’” He immediately became my new favorite player.
Grimaldi is a devout Christian from Southern California. He scored the gold-medal-winning goal at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Asked whom he compared his game to, he said, “Mike Richards is one of my favorites. He can fight and hit, but I’m not a hitter and I don’t fight.”
In other words, he plays small. Do I wish deep down that, armored in his too-big helmet and bucket shorts, Rocco Grimaldi raged like a Spartan baby once left for dead, back now on the warpath? Christ, absolutely.
But as one scout said, “The only thing Grimaldi has to do to eliminate any questions about his future is to somehow grow.” This would be the challenge, then. How do you get to be content with where you top out?
Kent Russell is a writer who lives in New York.