National Hockey League scouts have nothing but scorn for the adage that good things come in little packages. A 5-foot-10 player has to have moves like Wayne Gretzky to be a first-round draftee, one 5-8 is unlikely to be picked in any round and a 5-6 skater generates nothing but laughs when prospects are dissected.
Nobody is laughing at Theo Fleury, however, now that he has slipped his 5-6, 160-pound frame through the cracks in the NHL wall to become a solid performer and all-star representative for the Calgary Flames, who will make their only regular season appearance at Capital Centre tonight (HTS, 8:00).
On a team with such proven scorers as Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour, and international talents such as Sergei Makarov and Robert Reichel, the highest-scoring forward is Fleury, drafted in the eighth round in 1987.
His 21 goals, 28 assists and plus-18 rating in 44 games do not begin to illustrate Fleury's value. He is a Dale Hunter with a sniper's skill; a player who can lift his team with a single hit-and-run dash across the ice; who drives opponents crazy while he sends them to defeat.
Fleury charges into corners, waves his stick in the face of opposing tough guys, grabs loose pucks and inspires his teammates to greater effort. After all, it's difficult for a 6-2 skater to take a night off when one eight inches shorter refuses to cruise through a single shift.
"I've never seen anyone like him," Calgary Coach Doug Risebrough said of Fleury. "There have been guys with his fire and his stature, but never combined with his skill level."
"He's a great competitor and he's always played bigger than his size," said assistant coach Guy Charron. "He only knows one way to play and that's all-out on every shift.
"He's a unique person and a real pleasure to coach. He makes things happen out there. He does take the odd bad penalty, because if he's hit he makes sure it's returned. He's tried to work on that. But there are certain things you don't want to change: He's tenacious on the ice and he creates a disturbance on the ice."
Fleury has been a prolific scorer at every level of competition, beginning with 397 points in 172 games as a junior with Moose Jaw. He was captain of the Canadian junior team that upset the Soviets in the world championships in Moscow in 1988 and he rolled up 37 goals in 40 games for Salt Lake City of the International League.
Fleury joined the Flames late in the 1988-89 season and scored the winning goal in the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals, setting the tone for Calgary's six-game victory over Montreal. Still, a lot of his teammates considered Fleury too brash.
"When I first came up, I said a lot," Fleury admitted. "Too much. The wrong things. I offended some people. Now I feel accepted."
If his teammates had their doubts, opponents had none. They couldn't stand the little guy who kept whacking them with his stick while chattering up a storm.
Edmonton's Jeff Beukeboom provided a typical comment when he called Fleury "a jerk" in a recent Sports Illustrated article. That somewhat critical story merely served to get Fleury more riled up than usual. He recorded his first NHL hat trick against the New York Rangers Dec. 5, in his first game after it was published.
And Fleury insists he really is a nice guy -- off the ice.
"When I go out to play, I put on a mask," Fleury said. "The person is not the player. Too many people get the two mixed up. I'm really a quiet person."
A natural center, Fleury has been restricted somewhat by his switch to right wing. That was mandated because the Flames have a remarkable collection of centers in Nieuwendyk, Gilmour, Reichel and Joel Otto.
Fleury started the season on a highly productive line with Gilmour and Paul Ranheim, but when Ranheim suffered a broken leg in December, Risebrough was forced to make adjustments. The most recent pairing had Fleury with Nieuwendyk and rookie Tim Sweeney.
"I couldn't be happier the way things are going," Fleury said. "You have to earn your ice time, especially with Risebrough. You have to go out every night and play committed, play his kind of game. I know what I have to do. I'm expected to score . . . to shake things up."