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Tampa Bay Lightning's thoughts with assistant coach Wayne Fleming on day of brain-tumor surgery

Lightning assistant coach Wayne Fleming was alert and speaking after surgery Tuesday for a brain tumor.

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Lightning assistant coach Wayne Fleming was alert and speaking after surgery Tuesday for a brain tumor.

TAMPA — The lessons of a lifetime must serve him well now. The bywords he has used so often as a coach have to get him through.

You grind. You scrap. You work. You do not give in when the pressure builds. You do not worry what the odds are.

Now, in the fight of his life, Wayne Fleming plays on. When you consider the game he has coached, when you consider the lessons he has taught, what else would you expect?

In the moments following Tampa Bay's 4-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night, Tampa Bay won again. Coach Guy Boucher was barely off the ice when he was told Fleming had made it through a daylong surgery in Irvine, Calif., to remove a malignant brain tumor and was alert and speaking. Seconds later, when Boucher stood in front of his team, he told it first about Fleming. They talked about the game later.

"When you consider the operation he had, it's extremely positive,'' Boucher said. "As far as Wayne, any positive is big.''

For Fleming, there is still much to be determined about his condition. Still, he is in the Lightning's thoughts, and if you believe the players, he is still in their games. Fleming, 60, has become the favorite crusty uncle of this team, the guy with the sharp tongue and the golden heart. And, yes, the guy whose presence is still felt inside of the locker room.

"Every day," Boucher said. "We miss him every day."

Even now the Lightning players will tell you how Fleming has motivated them, pushed them, inspired them. This is his playoffs, too, and this is still his penalty kill unit that has defused 50 of 52 threats this postseason. Otherwise, one can only imagine how many text messages he might have sent.

Game after game, night after night, play after play, he texts. Before Tuesday, he had texted different players with different messages. He texts video coach Nigel Kirwan, who in turn forwards Fleming's observations to Boucher.

"He texts all sorts of things," Boucher said. "Congratulations. X's and O's. 'This guy is too high.' 'That guy might be sleeping a little bit.' "

And is he usually correct?

"Always," Boucher said.

A puck is waiting for Fleming, by the way. When the Lightning beat Pittsburgh in Game 7 in the first round, Boucher made sure to collect the puck for Fleming, just to remind him of his ongoing contributions.

"We talk about it as a team," Boucher said. "You can't hide it. The man is going through hell. It's all about fighting and believing. I know this: If it comes down to fight, he'll beat it."

Again, what else would you expect? Fleming coached the penalty kill, after all, which is sports' ultimate underdog unit. The very nature of a penalty kill is overcoming odds, standing up to pressure, overcoming difficult situations. Yeah, this qualifies.

A man spends 30 years on a sheet of ice and there are a lot of ways to define him. You could talk about Fleming's knowledge, or the stories he tells, or the places he has been.

Or you could put it this way: Tuesday morning, every player who talked about their assistant coach did the darndest thing. He smiled.

"He's the life of our locker room," Steven Stamkos said.

"He's a great man, a caring man," Marty St. Louis said. "He'll make you laugh if you're having a bad day."

As descriptions of a man's character go, that one isn't bad, is it?

It was late in the regular season when Boucher began to notice a difference in Fleming. He went home sick one day, and he was dizzy the next, and something seemed wrong. Still, Fleming knew about his tumor two weeks before he told Boucher. Even then, he didn't want the players to know about his condition because he didn't want it to be a distraction.

It is a sobering collection of words, "cancer" and "brain surgery." Still, he is a hockey man. For three decades Fleming has traveled the globe to wring a little bit more out of his players. He has worked for six NHL teams, and in Switzerland and Germany and Russia. He has won a gold medal in the Olympics.

With the Lightning and Boucher, their impossibly young head coach, Fleming has been a perfect fit. Oh, Boucher worried at first, because some coaches grow more rigid as their experience grows. By his nature, Boucher skates outside of convention, and he didn't want an assistant who would hold him back.

Fleming is the opposite. He loves hockey outside the box, and the two have melded perfectly. Fleming is his older adviser — his Monte Kiffin, if you will.

Tuesday morning, Boucher imagined what instructions Fleming would have for his surgeon.

"He would say, 'I'll see you later, and I'll be standing up,' " Boucher said, grinning.

Fleming is funny that way, sly and dry, witty enough to get his digs in before the victim realizes he has been dug.

"He's the kind of guy who will say "That's a smart, smart idea,' " Boucher said. "And then he won't say anything else, and finally you realize 'He's laughing at me.' Or he'll say, 'That's a good idea. Let's see how many times that doesn't work.' "

Boucher talked to Fleming on Sunday night. He texted him Monday and again Tuesday morning. Good luck, he said. Everyone is praying for you, he said. He used the words people use when words aren't big enough.

Now that he is talking, Fleming will soon choose words of his own.

Anyone want to guess how long it will take him to get around to talking about hockey?

Tampa Bay Lightning's thoughts with assistant coach Wayne Fleming on day of brain-tumor surgery 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 11:56pm]
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