In mid-May, with the Penguins recently returning from a road trip to Ottawa for Games 3 and 4 in their Eastern Conference Final matchup against the Senators, Marc-Andre Fleury sat in an upscale Pittsburgh restaurant — a favorite among Penguins — with his family. He smiled, greeted a few fans that approached him and even signed a couple autographs before a waiter politely asked that he be left alone. You would never know that Fleury, after carrying the Penguins through two series they had no business winning versus the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, had recently lost the starting job once again. Despite dominating Conn Smythe conversations leading up to Game 3 — which he was quickly pulled from after allowing four goals on just nine shots — he had returned to being the backup in Pittsburgh, a role he assumed one year prior.
Instead, he was as pleasant and welcoming as ever and no one was surprised because, well, that’s Fleury.
Fast forward a few short weeks and there’s the Penguins, standing on the ice at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville following their second consecutive Stanley Cup Championship — and it’s Fleury’s turn to take a lap with hockey’s ultimate prize. Unlike 2016, when Fleury watched the whole thing develop from the comfort of Pittsburgh’s bench, he would enjoy this one. He’d proudly take his lap holding hockey’s holy grail, as Pittsburgh fans would get their last glimpse of the man they call ‘The Flower’ in a Penguins jersey. And instead of following the tradition that says he hand the Cup to the next oldest player, he sought out Matt Murray in a scene that meant much more than simply passing a trophy. He was passing the torch to his heir. It was the perfect ending to his Pittsburgh tenure.
The Best Teammate Anyone Could Ask For
Fleury didn’t have to waive his no-movement clause to ease the burden of a looming expansion draft, which according to both Fleury and general manager Jim Rutherford, he agreed to do all the way back in training camp. He could have been bitter after losing his starting job — and really, the only home he’s known in the NHL throughout his 13-year career — to a young up-and-comer in Murray. He could have taken the route of others, like Ottawa Senators’ defenseman Dion Phaneuf, and simply said ‘no’. Doing so would have placed pressure upon Rutherford to hurriedly trade Fleury prior to the deadline or worst case, buy him out at season’s end and suffer the cap consequences of doing so.
But he said yes, despite the emotional toll this situation caused him because that’s the type of professional Fleury is.
The Penguins cleaned out their lockers on Thursday afternoon, and the players spoke with media for the final time. As you’d expect, Fleury — and his impending departure — dominated most of those conversations. Players weighed in, shared memories and the common theme among everyone was simply, he’s the best teammate you could ask for. Murray, who has shown an immense amount of respect for Fleury since arriving in Pittsburgh and competing with him for the starting role, summed it up perfectly.
He’s just so selfless, I think. He puts the needs of the team and his teammates above his own, treats everybody with respect. He’s just one of the best, most genuine human beings you’ll ever meet. – Matt Murray, courtesy of Post-Gazette.Com.
A teary-eyed Fleury, sitting in his stall and addressing media for the last time as a Penguin, struggled to fight back his emotions as he recalled the good times with this organization. Originally from Sorel, Quebec, Fleury is a Pittsburgher now — evident by the Pittsburgh Pirates hat he proudly donned for the cameras. And through his tears, despite the somber mood of his exit interview, he found a way to lighten things up by taking jabs at long-time teammates. When asked how he’d say goodbye to the likes of Sidney Crosby, he said he wouldn’t, laughingly saying that he’d simply walk away and had some fun talking about facing his former teammates on the ice next season.
“It’s something I don’t even like having to talk about”, said Crosby, echoing the sentiments of most of those who have played with, watched, or covered Fleury since 2003 when he joined the Penguins’ organization. A polarizing figure, Fleury has had plenty of ups and downs in Pittsburgh. And while his ups were exaggerated by his fans, just as his lows were exaggerated by his critics, there’s no arguing that he helped shape this organization into the powerhouse it has become. He’s a major part of the Pittsburgh community — an obvious fan favorite — and he’ll be missed by everyone.
But fittingly, big things likely await him.
A Bright Future
There are multiple scenarios that could play out in the coming weeks. However, the most likely outcome is Fleury becoming the first starting goaltender in the history of the Las Vegas Golden Knights. A perfect situation for a mentor like Fleury, and he’ll excel in that role. Just as he did with Pittsburgh throughout the early 2000’s, an era in which the Penguins were recreating themselves, he’ll be a crucial piece of their foundation that shapes the future of that expansion team.
The organization will be full of youth, of course, so a word of advice to all those youngsters… Pay attention to Fleury, the consummate professional.
Pay attention to how he approaches the game, with a youthful exuberance despite being a 32-year old veteran. Watch closely, as he gracefully handles the adversity a new franchise is sure to face. And most importantly, enjoy the opportunity to play with such a great teammate, great person, and great goaltender. If he is indeed a Golden Knight following the expansion draft on June 21, they’ll quickly realize how lucky they are to have such a special individual to get things started in Sin City. His fans in Pittsburgh will be pulling for him.