He’s the easygoing symbol of the sport’s most improbable team success story ever.
“I thought I was gonna get scored on a lot. ‘Let it go,’ right”?
Marc-Andre Fleury told a few of us reporters that after the inaugural Save Streak competition at the All-Star Game in Tampa this past January. He’d selected “Let it Go,” the signature song from Disney’s Frozen, to play while he faced shooters. And of course the guy who cared the least, who had the most fun, who sported the biggest smile, ended up stopping the most pucks and winning the whole darned thing.
It was a microcosm of Fleury’s season, which has oozed irony at every turn. The player deemed expendable after losing his starting job to Matt Murray, the player who earned his past two Stanley Cup rings from the bench, is now the Conn Smythe Trophy frontrunner. The goaltender known in recent years for a supposed lack of playoff prowess is having the best post-season run since at least Jonathan Quick in 2012 and probably since Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2003. Instead of joining what we all predicted would be a ridiculous sideshow in Vegas, Fleury’s having the best season, wire-to-wire, of his 14-year career, and he’s fuelling what may be the most improbable team success story in major sports history. Seriously, if Vegas wins six more games, how can we not put this team ahead of the Miracle on Ice and Leicester City? The 1980 U.S. Olympians had to win six games to capture gold. Leicester City won the English Premier League – but imagine if that meant playing seven-game series against four other top teams and needing 16 more victories to be named champion. Vegas, meanwhile, had 109 points when the previous NHL expansion record was 83 and are 10 victories deep in the playoffs when no other expansion team in any major North American pro sport had even posted a winning record in the regular season for more than five decades.
Fleury has been the poster child for this run, and Game 3 of the Western Conference final showcased all the best sides of him. In the middle of a scrum, he tickled the back of Jets captain Blake Wheeler’s ear. Yes, tickled. Fleury said he did it because everyone was jostling, he felt left out, and he wanted a laugh. The same guy who did that…did this to Mark Scheifele, twice:
Robbery like that earned Fleury first-star honors. Immediately after the game, he spent time in his stall with the two sons of late Humboldt Broncos coach Darcy Haugan. That’s Fleury, and for any readers and fans who ask why we media folks gush about him so much – it’s because he’s doing stuff like that every day, especially in his community outreach. It goes well beyond what happens on camera, too.
There may be no teammate in hockey more beloved. Five years ago, after a Pittsburgh Penguins’ morning skate, I was speaking to right winger Pascal Dupuis when a scrum of reporters approached to talk about that night’s game. “No, no,” Dupuis said, waving them off. “We’re talking about something completely different.” He was in the middle of pouring his heart out on the man everyone calls ‘Flower.’ Dupuis wanted to finish his train of thought. Talk to any people close to Fleury and they’ll wax poetic on his virtues as long as you want.
“He has the ability to constantly take the pulse of the dressing room,” said Allan Walsh, Fleury’s longtime agent. “He picks up guys that are down. He makes young guys feel comfortable. He relieves high-pressure situations by cracking a joke, pulling off a prank or just doing something silly that makes people laugh. He’s always smiling. He has no ego. Flower brings passion and joy to his game. He plays for the team and his teammates. His attitude and work ethic rub off on everyone around him. He makes other players better because teammates don’t want to let him down. That’s a key ingredient of Flower’s secret sauce.”
When I spoke with Fleury in the days and weeks after the Golden Knights selected him with the final pick of the 2017 expansion draft, I asked how he felt about being the face of the franchise, and he quickly dismissed the idea. As I said at the time, however, that very modesty is why he was always destined to become the face of the Golden Knights. And if he becomes the face of a championship team, he may punch his Hall of Fame ticket. He doesn’t have a Vezina to his name, but a Conn Smythe, four Cup rings and a possible top-three or even top-two finish on the league’s all-time wins list would make it tough to deny Fleury. It’s also human beings voting on Hall spots, lest we forget, and his personality certainly doesn’t hurt his chances.
“People have asked me over the years whether Flower is really as nice a guy as he seems on TV,” Walsh said. “Having represented him since he was 15 years old, I can honestly say – I’m kind of in awe of the guy, and I’ve known him for more than half his life.”