It’s hard to believe Marc-Andre Fleury — the Penguins’ backup goalie — could mean so much to a team and its city.
But when veteran goaltender Fleury was taken by the newly formed Vegas Golden Knights in last week’s NHL Expansion Draft, there was an outpouring of support and gratitude from the people of Pittsburgh.
Even though this has long been expected, fans were saddened to see Fleury leave. Last week — before the draft — at an autograph session at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, people were lined up 12 hours prior to the event, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
So, why all the fanfare for a player who frankly wouldn’t have made much of an impact going forward?
Well, first off, the Penguins lost a lot more than a backup. Fleury was the team’s longest-tenured player — competing in his first game in 2003. Throughout his 14 years in Pittsburgh, he was a fierce competitor, team player and, most importantly, a role model for the team’s young fans.
While those qualities were always visible, they were on full display over the last 14 months, starting at the beginning of last year’s playoffs when rookie Matt Murray overtook him as the team’s starter. And even though he didn’t know it at the time, it was the first event in a long sequence which led him to Vegas.
This situation had to be hard for him, as it would be for any athlete forced out of their role and onto the bench. But it wasn’t the fact that he was on the bench that made this moment stick out. Rather, it was how he handled it.
Fleury was one of Murray’s biggest supporters during the team’s run to the 2016 Stanley Cup championship. He never complained, instead looking at things from a team perspective.
“You know, [Murray starting is] fine,” Fleury told ESPN at the time. “I haven’t played in a month now, and what’s important is us winning. Matty’s given us a chance. He’s been in there. I’ll stay ready, I’ll encourage him … I’ll try my best to contribute whatever I’m doing just to help us win.”
This year, his attitude was largely the same as he split time with Murray amidst trade rumors and the looming possibility of the aforementioned expansion draft. In the playoffs, he was unexpectedly thrust into the starting role for the first two rounds before Murray took over in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Ottawa Senators. Again, there were no complaints from Fleury, who sat on the bench as Murray led the team to another Stanley Cup.
The team’s post-game celebration was the perfect summary of his last 14 months with the Penguins. As he approached the end of his lap with the Cup, he turned and handed it off to Murray, patting him on the back and passing the torch in the process.
“I got [the Cup] ahead of some of the older guys, and that’s because Flower handed it to me, and I have to say that’s one of the most special moments of my life,” Murray said after the game.
The way in which Fleury handled his difficult situation was different from what many other so-called role models would’ve done. Today, many athletes achieve this status solely because of their talent. It doesn’t matter what they do in the locker room or outside the game.
How many athletes over the years have demanded a trade from a certain team? How many football or basketball players have complained they don’t get the ball enough to make them happy?
The answer: Too many to list here, particularly in the NBA, where stars often complain they don’t get the ball down the stretch of a close game. One such player is eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, who has complained multiple times over the years with several organizations.
In 2012, the 6-foot-11 center demanded a trade from the Orlando Magic and drew attention to the team’s unwillingness to rely upon him down the stretch.
“I do want the ball more in the fourth quarter,” Howard said to Fox Sports after beating the Milwaukee Bucks 99-94. “I want to become a closer. The only way you get there is by getting the ball and have coach have the confidence in giving me the ball.”
Howard got his trade, going to the Los Angeles Lakers for one year before arriving in Houston to play for the Rockets. But he was displeased there as well, saying in an interview with ESPN he was “disinterested” at times because he felt his “role was being reduced.” He again asked for a trade and was headed to the Atlanta Hawks, where he played this past season.
Howard’s situation isn’t uncommon, either. The most recent example occurred just last week, as New York Mets infielder Asdrubal Cabrera asked to be traded after being moved from shortstop to second base.
These players complain, and they’re still starting on a regular basis. Imagine if they were put in Fleury’s situation, moved to the bench in favor of a much less experienced player. It would be much more dramatic, and yet, Fleury maintained supporting Murray throughout the Penguins’ process.
After this season ended, the veteran goaltender’s fate was all but sealed. He was headed to Las Vegas, and he knew it. Still, he wasn’t done giving to Pittsburgh.
A few days before the draft, Fleury opened a brand-new playground at the Sto-Ken-Rox Boys and Girls Club in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. Fleury helped fund the project and also donated supplies and hockey equipment.
“It’s been something [my wife, Veronique, and I] have been thinking about for a little while, and we were just thinking about something to give back,” Fleury said in a press release. “The people of Pittsburgh have been so good to me, so to build something fun, something for the kids, I’m glad it all came out and the kids seem to like it.”
And just hours after the draft, he made time to organize a street hockey event for the kids in his new town, attempting to endear himself to his new city.
Allowing Vegas to take Fleury was clearly the right move for the future of the team, however Pittsburgh lost one of its best role models for young fans. Sure, there are others — Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen and Steelers rookie James Conner to name a few — who have inspired the city, but none have been here longer or made as much of an impact as Fleury.
It will be odd to see him don a different black and gold uniform next season, but the city of Pittsburgh will always be behind him.
In a letter titled “Thank You, Pittsburgh” for The Players Tribune, Fleury said he didn’t know how it would feel returning to PPG Paints Arena Feb. 6. But he should receive nothing less than a standing ovation from the fans, and I have no doubt they’ll give it to him.