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Former Flames, Oilers coach Wayne Fleming dies at 62

By Eric Francis, Calgary Sun

Former Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers coach Wayne Fleming. (QMI Agency)

Former Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers coach Wayne Fleming. (QMI Agency)

Strapped into the plush recliner given to him by the Tampa Bay Lightning players who so loved him, Wayne Fleming was constantly surrounded by the keepsakes in his sitting room that meant so much.

Confined to his southwest Calgary home as part of a two-year battle with brain cancer, Fleming spent his time between visitors watching games and looking at the various pucks, pictures and other memorabilia given to him signifying various milestones.

“I had no idea so many people could care,” Fleming said last spring, marvelling at the support he’d been receiving from around the hockey world.

Next to a plaque defining what it meant to be an Olympian sat a reminder of one of his dearest memories — a 2002 photo of him with the coaching staff in Salt Lake City that helped land Canada its first Olympic gold in 50 years.

Also in the picture is one of his closest of friends, Ken Hitchcock, who was understandably somber following news “Flemmer’s” battle ended Monday.

The native of Snowflake, Man., was 62.

“I think he had a tough go of it the last little while, and we all felt for his family,” said Hitchcock whose colleague and friend had been confined to his bed since June.

“The qualities that made him a great human and coach — as well as his intense will to live — kept him going longer than anyone, including doctors, felt he would.”

Serving as an assistant for six NHL teams, including the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers and the Tampa Bay Lightning, with whom he was coaching when his brain tumour was discovered in 2011, Fleming also made his mark coaching in Europe, with Team Canada and at the University of Manitoba.

“When you spend years with him in the league, you realize how appreciated he was, not just in Canada and the U.S., but worldwide,” added Hitchcock, who coached with Fleming in Philadelphia, calling him the “Peter Forsberg of coaches,” due to his international appeal.

“He’s the only person I’ve ever been involved with in this sport who had friends in every city. He could go to 29 cities and never have a coach’s dinner — he always had people who wanted to be with him because he was a genuine friend and he always made time for them.”

An endless stream of hockey royalty called and visited Fleming and his wife Carolyn in Calgary the last two years, something she says had given her husband endless strength and happiness.

Just last month, the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame held a stirring bedside induction ceremony for him that prompted Fleming’s generally unresponsive eyes to open, followed by a rare conversation with Hockey Canada president and friend Bob Nicholson the next day.

“Our kids call every day and we put the phone to his ears but whether he can respond or not, he’ll shed a tear,” said Carolyn, perfectly illustrating the heart and passion that made her husband so popular.

On Tuesday, tributes poured in from around the hockey world, but few more powerful than that from Hitchcock, who dedicated his Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year to Fleming last summer.

“He really helped me become a better coach because he made me really appreciate the people in the business and helped me understand the human side of the game, and I didn’t want that to be unnoticed,” said Hitchcock, who knew Sunday while in Calgary his friend’s time was short.

“We’re all grasping for wins but Wayne made it bigger than that and he made it feel like we were in the people business. He always said to players that the key to being successful was ‘no matter what happens, carry your spirit.’”

His players — and the rest of the hockey world — will be doing that in his honour the next few days.

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