Marc-Andre Fleury is hoping he can hold it together when he heads into Pittsburgh for the first time to face off against the Penguins, the franchise with which he built a tremendous legacy on and off the ice. “So weird,” said the Vegas Golden Knights goalie. “There are mixed feelings when you play against guys you played with so long.”
As he ponders going back to the only NHL home he had ever known prior to this season, Marc-Andre Fleury isn’t concerned about how he’ll play. After all, the way he’s performed this season, that should be the last of his worries. In reality, Fleury is far more preoccupied with how he’ll react when a tribute video is shown on the jumbotron of the PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday night during the first stoppage of play.
“He’s worried about it,” said Fleury’s agent Allan Walsh. “I think he’s thinking, ‘I sure hope I don’t lose it in front of everybody.’ ”
If Fleury were to get a little verklempt and need a moment in the Vegas Golden Knights crease, nobody would blame him. It’s always difficult for an athlete to return to his old home for the first time, but it’s even more difficult when the relationship between the players, his teammates and the fan base is so intimate and so genuine. One of the great things about playing for the Golden Knights this season is that almost every game, there’s a player on the roster with a chip on his shoulder who wants to stick it to his old team. But it’s hard to imagine that’s the case with Fleury, one of the most respected players in the NHL today. Fleury will not be spitting in anyone’s eye on the way out of town.
Because as far as he’s concerned it’s simply not about Marc-Andre Fleury. And that’s what makes him “the best player team player in sports,” according to Penguins GM Jim Rutherford during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup. Need any more proof? Well, the Penguins asked Fleury if they could present his Stanley Cup ring to him in a pre-game ceremony on the ice and Fleury quickly declined, saying it would not be fair to his teammates. So instead, there will be a low-key quiet ceremony conducted by owner Mario Lemieux in Rutherford’s office after the Golden Knights’ morning skate.
When William Karlsson scored twice against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Golden Knights’ 6-3 victory before the all-star break, there might not have been a happier man on the planet. And that’s perfectly understandable, since Karlsson was never given the opportunity to show his abilities in Columbus the way he has in Vegas. With that in mind, Fleury wants desperately to win the game, but isn’t looking forward to proving anyone wrong. “I think it helps that we already played (the Penguins) in Vegas and we won 2-1,” said Fleury, referring to the Dec. 14 game in which he stopped 24 of 25 shots. “I was happy. It was a weird game. So weird. There are mixed feelings when you play against guys you played with so long.”
To suggest that this is another game for Fleury, or anyone else involved, would be a stretch. Fleury’s wife and two children are making the trip from Vegas and will be met by Fleury’s parents and sister for the game. Winning three Stanley Cups with this group is one thing, but Fleury clearly forged a bond with the organization and fan base with his charitable efforts and down-to-earth demeanor. The fact that he did not make it about himself as he lost his starting job not once, but twice, over the past two Stanley Cup runs, is a measure of his character. Fleury refused to take the attention away from his teammates, which is in line with his penchant for always thinking of others.
“During the fires in Los Angeles, the first thing he did was pick up the phone and call me,” said Walsh, who is based in Los Angeles. “And he said, ‘If you have any issues with your house, just pack up your family and stay with me here in Vegas.’ “He genuinely cares about people. In all the years I’ve been in this business, I’ve never seen anyone like him.
Nor will they ever see anyone like him again in Pittsburgh. Nobody is irreplaceable, but there’s also the sense that Pittsburgh and the Penguins had something very unique in Marc-Andre Fleury. It will be interesting to see how many dry eyes there will be in the house, but we do know that the ovation for Fleury during that tribute video will be long and loud and heartfelt. “It doesn’t matter really,” Fleury said when asked whether he thinks the ovation will be long. “I’ll just be happy to be there for a few claps. It’s all good.”