SÖDERTÄLJE, Sweden – Like all young hockey players, Damien Fleury grew up dreaming of playing the game at a high level with and against world class competition. The 26-year-old right wing from Caen, France has gotten to live out those ambitions; a significant accomplishment for a player from any country, but especially one hailing from a nation that is not a major international hockey power.
Over the course of his professional and international career, Fleury has carved a niche as a mobile and talented offensive player. He has proven himself capable of keeping up with teammates and opponents with skills that exceed anything he experienced while learning the game in his native France.
The last year in particular has been a whirlwind of exciting experiences for Fleury. On the international stage, he had the opportunity to take part in France’s surprisingly solid showing at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He scored a goal in a preliminary round game against eventual silver-medalist Slovakia, and participated in France’s upset win over favoured Switzerland.
After a tremendous offensive campaign at Sweden’s Allsvenskan level for Västerås IK in 2010-11, he played a full season in Elitserien with Luleå HF and Timrå IK. In the offseason, Fleury accepted an offer from Södertälje SK to return to Allsvenskan. He has recently gotten the opportunity to play on a dynamic line with locked-out NHL players Carl Hagelin (New York Rangers) and Matt Read (Philadelphia Flyers), and the trio has thrived since being united.
Read and Hagelin both possess blazing speed and outstanding two-way skills with and without the puck. It is Fleury’s job to use his own quickness to get to scoring areas and finish off scoring chances. Through his first 18 games of the 2012-13 season, Fleury has compiled a team-high 14 points (7 goals and 7 assists). The majority of the points have come since the formation of the new line. Fleury has revealed in the opportunity.
“Matt and Carl are the most talented teammates I’ve ever played with,” says Fleury. “It’s great for me to play with these guys. They are fast and they have lots of skills. I’ve been learning a lot just by playing with them. Also, I think we have a lot of fun on the ice together. They are very nice guys. This is a great chance for me personally and also as a French player.”
Damien Fleury was bitten by the ice hockey bug at a very young age. Unlike all of his other family members and most of his friends in Caen, he soon found that the rink was his favourite place to be.
“I started playing hockey when I was three years old after I watched a game on the TV,” Fleury recalled. “I´m the only guy in my family who is playing ice hockey. All the others play soccer. For years, Pavel Datsyuk has been my favourite player. He is great both offensively and defensively, and he has incredible skills. Every time, he is going on the ice, you know something’s gonna happen.”
Regardless of someone’s natural athletic talent, no hockey player can succeed without the benefit of good coaching. Even in France, Fleury was fortunate enough to have access to good instructors. In Caen, he was primarily coached by Rodolphe Garnier. Later, in Grenoble, he worked with Swedish coach Mats Lusth.
Fleury is quick to give both men credit in his hockey development. They recognized his talents, helped him hone his game and encouraged him to seek opportunities for further improvement.
“Rodolphe gave me the chance to be a professional [with the Caen Drakkars] when I was 17 years old, and Mats taught me a lot of things. It was Mats who told me I should go to Sweden to become a better player,” said Fleury.
Fleury’s star rose quickly in the small world of French hockey. In 2005-06, while with Caen, he was named the Ligue Magnus rookie of the year. He joined the Grenoble Brûleurs de Loups for the 2007-08 season and suited up for France during the national team’s Olympic qualifier games in 2008. Finally, in 2009-10, Fleury won Ligue Magnus most valuable player honours after racking up 22 goals and 39 points in 25 regular season matches plus 6 goals and 10 points in 6 Coupe de la Ligue games.
By the time he celebrated his 24th birthday, Fleury had accomplished just about every personal honour he could hope to attain by playing in France. When Lusth suggested he relocate to Sweden to pursue a higher-level professional career, Fleury realized that even bigger opportunities could be on the horizon. He contacted an agent who helped him land a contract with Västerås.
Even against Allsvenkan grade opposition, Fleury faced a significant step up from the caliber of teammates and opponents he experienced in France. But the young man navigated the transition remarkably well.
On the ice, Fleury was an instant success in Allsvenskan. He tallied 25 goals and 37 points in 44 games for Västerås. He also became acclimated to living in a different country and fitting into a locker room where there were no other French players.
“I had a great time in Västerås, I really liked it there,” said Fleury. “When I was in France, my coach was Swedish and we had a lot of Swedes in our team so we played quite a bit like the Swedish style. So that helped prepare me. But still, every player over here is so fast and has so good skills here so I had to work a lot to execute everything more quickly.”
Fleury also quickly learned to adapt to the off-ice aspects of life in Scandinavia.
“In terms of life in Sweden, you have to be ready to have a very cold winter with a lot of snow. But the worst thing is the darkness in the winter! When you´re used to that, it´s a very nice country with a lot of great people. I really enjoy living here,” he said.
Following his big season for Västerås, Fleury had the opportunity to move up to Elitserien for the 2011-12 season. He split the season between Luleå (20 games) and Timrå (32 games plus 8 postseason matches in the Kvalserien playdowns, where TIK retained its place in the Elite league).
The year was a valuable learning experience at Sweden’s highest professional level, but did not go entirely as Fleury had hoped before the start of the season.
“The hockey in Luleå was great. They have a very good team there and that was a really good experience for me. But, after a while, I started to feel bad outside hockey. The life in the north of Sweden was harder for me than I anticipated at first. So I decided to move on and Timrå signed me. Hockey-wise, we had a tough year with TIK but it was exciting to save the team in Elitserien,” he said.
Fleury finished his first Elitserien campaign with a combined 12 goals and 16 points in 52 games with Luleå and Timrå. While that is a respectable total for a first-year player in a low-scoring league, the ambitious Frenchman was not entirely happy with his output before he signed with Södertälje SK in the 2012 off-season.
“All in all, I was pretty satisfied with my season but I still was a little bit frustrated at times, because I know I can do much better in Elitserien,” he said. “I hope I get to show that next year with Södertälje after we get promoted to Elitserien!”
Södertälje got off to a rough start prior to the signings of Read and Hagelin. Ever since the two NHL players have joined forces with Fleury, things have taken a dramatic turn for the better. The team recently won eight of nine games, including victories over Mora IK and the once-mighty Djurgården Stockholm.
During the NHL lockout, Mora has featured Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar, while Colorado Avalanche standout Gabriel Landeskog and San Jose Sharks defenceman Douglas Murray are playing for Djurgården.
One area where SSK still needs to improve is in its performance in away games. The club boasts the league’s best record on home ice but collected only seven points (2-5-1 record) in its first eight games on the road.
“I think we have to play more simple when we’re away,” said Fleury. “Every team is tough to beat on their own rink. A lot of the games have been close, so we have to be ready for a war if we want to win on the road. Hope we will find the way soon to start winning more on the road.”
Earlier this week, Fleury did his part to help spark SSK to its second road of the season. He scored a pair of goals and added an assist in a 4-2 win in Västerås.
Beyond his goal to help Södertälje earn a return trip to Elitserien (the team was relegated in 2011 after a heartbreaking final game loss to MODO Örnsköldsvik), Fleury also wants to help France improve upon its encouraging performance at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
The scoring touch that Fleury has regularly shown in his club team play has not fully emerged in his international career. In 19 career World Championship games to date, Fleury has registered two goals and zero assists. This modest production is partially due to a lack of comparably talented playmakers and finishers around him, as well as partially due to the need for the French team to play a highly defensive style to avoid blowout losses to the more talented teams in the tournament.
At the last World Championship, however, there were definite signs of improvement. France scored one of its biggest upset victories of its recent hockey history when it downed Switzerland. The team’s goal scoring output also improved considerably from previous tournaments.
Even so, Fleury feels his team could have done even better.
“To beat Switzerland was very important to us. It was my most important experience in my international career,” he said. “We played well last World Championship but, still, we are very disappointed that we didn´t make the quarter-finals.”
“We should have beaten Slovakia but they are more experienced than us and I think that’s why we lost that game. But we won against Kazaksthan, Switzerland and Belarus, and we scored a lot of goals. So I hope we’re gonna do the same thing next year but qualify for the quarter-finals.”
As a player who grew up looking up to the game’s top players in the international realm and the NHL, Fleury understands the importance of aspiring young French players having high-calibre professional players to emulate. He hopes to encourage more promising young French players to follow a similar career path to his own.
“We are starting to see young French players play in the best European leagues, and that’s been a big help to the national team. That’s why we are better now,” he said. “I think we have a lot of fun playing together. We are all friends, and we want to show to everybody that we can play good hockey and have a couple of good French players in the top leagues.”