Johnson: Fleming remembered as a ‘consummate hockey guy’
Hockey world mourns death of former Flames assistant coach
The relationship, the mutual respect, dated all the way back to the early ’70s, to the old, long-gone Bison Gardens on the U of Manitoba campus, and The Dog House, Rutherford Arena, in Saskatoon.
“Yeah, we do go back a ways,” Dave King was reminiscing Tuesday from his home in Phoenix. “I’m pretty sure we played against each other in college. My, my. I was at the University of Saskatchewan and he was at Manitoba. He was a centreman, too, I believe. Smart, smart player, as I remember. I can’t ever recall losing a faceoff to him, though ...
“Then, later, when I was coaching the (U of S) Huskies, we were playing in a tournament, the University of Manitoba was in it too, and Flemmer was an assistant there to Andy Bakogeorge. He’d come back from Europe and wanted to get into coaching. That was when I really got to the chance to meet him, to talk with him.
“And you knew, right away, if that’s what he wanted, this guy was going to be good at it.”
Wayne Fleming was a hockey coach. That was his vocation. His calling. His joy.
He was a teacher. A nurturer. A compass.
Not a personality. Not an ego. Not a sound bite.
A coach. Full stop. In the very best, the purest, sense of the word.
Wayne Fleming passed away of brain cancer on Monday, only 62, and the number of people within the wide hockey community that he nurtured or influenced, those who feel sadness at his passing and relief that his pain is finally over, knows no number.
While in the employ of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the ex-Calgary Flames assistant underwent surgery in April 2011 after a malignant tumour was discovered.
“The last couple years, Wayne kept battling, kept fighting, but it became clear this wasn’t going to be a happy ending,” said King softly. “He went through a lot. So did his whole family, his wife Carolyn. Carolyn was a real battler, too.
“It’s a sad thing. A sad day. He was a great coach.
“More than that, though, everybody who knew Wayne liked Wayne. Guys would join a team you were with and you’d say ‘Hey, you played for Flemmer in Tampa Bay, right?’ And they’d go: ‘Oh gee, yeah, what a great guy.’ That was the common theme.
“He was one of those hockey people who enrich the game with their presence.”
Dave King last saw his friend in September for a couple of hours during a trip here to visit. He can’t say enough about the hockey fraternity in Calgary, about Lanny McDonald and Charlie Simmer and Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson, among others, for the hours they spent with Fleming, the support they provided.
“From a distance, being so far away, it’s hard. But knowing people like that, like Lanny and Charlie and Bob and others, were here, visiting all the time, being with Flemmer, made it easier on everybody else. So impressive. They spent a lot of time at Wayne’s bedside. We really appreciate what they did. For Flemmer. For Carolyn.”
Fleming spent time with six NHL teams, including his time here with the Flames, held head coaching positions at various European clubs and was an avowed supporter of the Hockey Canada program, helping guide this country to a silver medal at the ’92 Olympics and gold in Salt Lake in 2002.
“His tactical understanding of the game was phenomenal,” praised King. “And he shared everything, was generous with his knowledge and his ideas. A great person that way. With all that expertise, though, he still maintained the ability to be a player’s coach. And that’s a tough thing to do; it requires a really fine balancing act. It’s something a lot of us can’t do all the time. Flemmer could do it all the time. The first word that comes to mind when you mention Flemmer, to me, is: Dedication. Players sensed that.
“You talk to Ken Hitchcock, you talk to the guys in Tampa Bay, whatever team he went to, they were pretty successful. He’d just be there in the background, someone a lot of hockey fans maybe wouldn’t even know, but anyone within the inner circle of that team knew, understood, what he meant. Ask and they’d tell you ‘Oh boy, what an important guy.’ ”
That important guy is gone now. He fought hard, as he always wanted his teams to. He lost with dignity, as he always wanted his teams to, as well.
“People like Wayne,” emphasized Dave King, “never really leave because of everything they put into the game. Anybody who met him, was around him, will always remember Flemmer because of who he was, how he helped, the influence he had on them, so many players and coaches.
“He might not have been a ‘big name’, in terms of head coaching, but he just made teams better, wherever he went. And he liked it that way. A lot of guys can’t stand not being the centre of attention. Flemmer couldn’t have cared less. For him, it was all about the team, about getting better.
“As I said before, a great coach. And a wonderful, wonderful person.
“Just ... a consummate hockey guy.”
As an epitaph, Wayne Fleming, the quiet, measured, authoritative voice of experience and expertise content to stay in the background, would doubtless approve.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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