This article is a follow up to another piece here.
Marc-Andre Fleury is my guy. He also happens to be a Pittsburgh legend. I decided to do this piece because it needed to be done right, as he absolutely deserves to have a proper guidepost for those who would ever doubt him or for those who simply don’t understand how great he truly was during his tenure as a Pittsburgh Penguin. I am eternally appreciative of what he did during his time here and I hope that through reading this piece you’ll get that feeling too.
Marc-Andre Fleury is more than a Hall of Fame NHL goaltender, he is also an extraordinary person who contributed heavily to the well-being of his community, teammates, and fans during his tenure in Pittsburgh and it’s not like that has stopped in Vegas either. What jumps out to me is how he has kept steadfastly committed to who he is as a person throughout his career as one of the best goaltenders of his generation.
“For him, every day he can go on the rink and have fun is a good one. A totally pure kid. And nothing will change him. Not going to a big city like Pittsburgh (lol…big city eh Pascal?!). Not the NHL. Not money. Nothing.”
– Pascal Vincent, his coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, commenting before he was drafted (1)
Vincent has a good handle on things, as he is one of the fastest rising coaches/hockey minds in the game today. This is quote is from 2003. I’d say it’s aged quite well.
I’ve grown up in Pittsburgh, came up through high school, college at Pitt, and I live here now. As a fan of the sports teams in the area, namely the Steelers and Penguins, I recognize that to have a Hall of Fame caliber player come up on the sports team you’re a fan of is extremely rare. Luckily for us we have some damn good scouts on the west side of PA. Some franchises have trouble developing Hall of Fame caliber players for extended periods of time. Some seem to churn them out, here and there, for years on end. As life goes, it is a mixture of talent and opportunity. Certainly coming into a successful franchise with stability and a penchant for winning helps too, as a winning attitude is tough to cultivate.
Collectively us yinzers are some of the most fortunate sports fans arahnd. So far in my lifetime I’ve been able to experience 3 Super Bowl trips (2-1) and 4 Stanley Cup Finals appearances (3-1). Accompanying these titles is a list of players that have made their mark as some of the best to ever grace us with their athletic abilities. In other words this generation of Pittsburgh sports fans have been fortunate enough to experience and root for some of the best players in franchise history, yes, but also in LEAGUE history, across all levels, some of the best players of ALL TIME are honorary yinzers.
When you look at the winning mixed with the talent you can begin to understand the scope of our fortunes. Count me as grateful folks.
Yet, as magnificent as some of those guys were on the ice, the gridiron, or the diamond (way back now Bucs fans!), we are doubly fortunate that a great many of them were also Hall of Fame caliber people as well. Roberto Clemente. Mario Lemieux. Troy Polamalu. Marc-Andre Fleury.
In the 2018 post season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had a streak snapped of 9 straight play-off series victories. Within that frame two Cups were brought here. Add 2009, and you get 3 in 10 seasons. We’re right on the brink of a modern day dynasty. As of now we have 13 straight post-season appearances, the longest streak in the league. For any squad to have this type of sustained success, a profound and cohesive core of players is needed. Two of those guys, sadly, ended up leaving us after the 2017 Cup run. One of them literally started it all, back in 2003, when the Pens traded up in the NHL Draft from #3 to #1 in order to select a gangly, athletic kid from Sorel, Quebec, named Marc-Andre Fleury.
“We decided that the best place to start building is in the goal…If you’re building a team from scratch, the way you want to do it is from the goal out… We feel we’ve gotten off to a tremendous start with Marc-Andre” – Craig Patrick, Penguins GM at time of the draft (1)
”To trade up and take a great prospect in Marc-André Fleury, who has a chance to be a franchise goaltender, makes this an exciting day for the Penguins. This is another important piece in our rebuilding process.” –Mario Lemieux
When you roll up your sleeves and dissect the process of team building you start to see how important it might be for a stud in net to be your go to move initially, even if using the first overall pick on a goalie seems silly in retrospect (and trading up from 3 to 1 to pick him is even more absurd—but I’m not mad about it!). Fleury ended up being the first real piece in our championship puzzle and quantifiably that piece was incredibly important in what followed. What you can’t quantify, however, is the supremely positive effect his personality, demeanor, and attitude had on his teammates, coaches, on the city as a whole, and on us as fans during his tenure here.
Positivity can be a hard commodity to come by in the static of today’s day and age, but when it came to Marc-Andre, that just never seemed to be the case. Smiles are infectious things and damned if that’s all I can seem to remember Flower doing. I don’t want to say I took those moments—those smiles—for granted but I surely did not fully recognize their true magic until I noticed their newfound rarity during the 2017 regular season.
No other professional athlete that I’ve ever seen has been able to combine joy with passion like Marc. He was always smiling so genuinely and often that you felt you got to know the real him because of the legitimate joy he shared with you every time he was out on the ice. He was competitive and always wanted to win in a light-hearted way that will always stick with me.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. There is something to be said of a professional athlete who connects with people beyond the game he or she plays through their actions within the field of play.
“Fleury’s reaction (to a shot off the knob of his stick) was why even his most ardent detractors have to begrudgingly enjoy the guy: He smiled widely through his mask, that ‘aw-shucks aren’t we all having fun here?’ grin that’s crept on his face for over a decade.”
“I talk to my stick, maybe. I say ‘thank you’ and say ‘good job,’” recalled Fleury after the game. (2)
This was after a pivotal save in what turned out to be a shut out of Washington in Game 7 of 2017’s second round, where he notably congratulated his stick afterwards. Classic Flower.
Marc-Andre Fleury is truly a special person. But you don’t have to take my word for it.
“I’ve coached him now for three years,” Vincent said, “and I’m still trying to find something bad about him.
-Pascal Vincent, commenting again before he was drafted (1)
“Anybody who gets to play with Flower, much less a goalie partner of Flower, is really lucky to have him,” Murray said. “He’s one of the best, most genuine human beings you’ll ever meet. He was like that and then some with me.”
– Matt Murray, the guy whose play ended up being the reason the team decided to move on from 29 to 30 (3)
Now, with the way things were to end for Fleury in Pittsburgh, he had a right to be upset about it. Selfless guy that he was though, you’d never know it. Matt Murray—the guy who ended up replacing him as the Penguins starting netminder—could have been an easy target for negative emotions. Instead of being vindictive, jealous, or angry, Marc helped him to the best of his ability at all times. Upon winning the Stanley Cup in 2017, Fleury proceeded to hand it to Murray, a passing of the torch in the most literal sense imaginable. This is a crystal-clear example as to the type of person Marc is. Think of it as the exact opposite of a guy like Brett Favre, who publicly bitched about Aaron Rodgers nipping at his heels while they were still teammates.
“I don’t have very many moments with Marc that didn’t stand out,” Cooke said. “He is a special individual. He always says the right things, always does the right things. He always puts his pride aside for the betterment of the team and when you’re part of a group, what else do you want?”
– Matt Cooke, Fleury’s teammate for 5 seasons (2008-2013) (4)
This quote from Cookie was from June of 2017, on a local radio show after everybody knew he would be leaving the team. It shows another perspective on how unselfish he is as a person, but especially, as a teammate.
“….He marveled at his attitude. “As a competitor, as an elite goalie in this league, it can’t be easy for him, but you would never know it. He is the ultimate pro.”
– Ben Lovejoy, Fleury’s teammate for parts of 7 separate seasons (5)
This was after the Cup win in 2016. Ben Lovejoy is a smart player and quite the professional himself; he went undrafted but managed to turn in a solid career where he managed to make millions of dollars playing professional ice hockey with absolutely no guarantee that would ever happen for him.
“I’m sure it hasn’t been an easy couple of years being in that situation,” said Crosby. “You sometimes forget how difficult it is because he handled it so well.”
“I know he’s going to do great things here,” he said. “They really couldn’t have found a better guy to do it.”
– Sidney Crosby, Fleury’s teammate for his entire tenure as a Penguin (13 seasons) (6)
Look Sidney Crosby’s opinion here is just as golden as his trophy case is alright? And my if those words haven’t panned out as he said they would.
Much of my family hails from the McKees Rocks area of Pittsburgh. I frequently visit my grandparents and brother who still live there. Generally speaking, it has seen better days. People in the streets look distant. The opiate epidemic has hit hard there and you can see it. Crime happens. Parked outside my house, my car has been run through (I left the door unlocked in my driveway) with the ol’ iPod classic stolen. Certain parts I would not feel comfortable walking at night.
My grandparents are of the old guard; there are still tons of blue collar, old school Italian, Ukrainian, and Polish families left over from the steel industry living there. My Pap worked in the mills for most of his life. We live on top of a hill with a great view of dahntahn surrounded by extended family members.
Funnily enough, much like myself, Marc-Andre Fleury knows a thing or two about growing up in a rough neighborhood with a bunch of your family as neighbors, surrounded by what easily could have been your own fate… the squalor, dirt, drugs, and poverty. The hopelessness. So, what’d he do on his way out of his second home?
Why he donated a beautiful playground to it, of course! Located at the Sto-Ken Rocks Boys and Girls club, it is quite the facility. More than that, he donated a ton of equipment, games, educational materials, and electronics to the place. At the indoor dek hockey rink he bought new nets and a score clock.
Marc-Andre Fleury embraced Pittsburgh as his home, much like Sorel had been his home before the draft. He came with his high school girlfriend Veronique and they started a family. This is his second home; let’s make sure the roots they have here are preserved and cared for, and always will be. Let’s not let him forget it either.
There are tons of horrible situations that these kids may be in at their homes, and with this gesture, the Fleurys’ have given this neighborhood a beautiful gift; legitimate hope that these kids will not succumb to their environment, that maybe they will in turn be able to find their own safe haven in something other than the crime and drugs that surround them. McKees Rocks is a rough place and these kids have been dealt less-than-ideal hole cards. If even one child is positively impacted by this sanctuary it shows that human compassion is capable of making a difference.
I enjoy when good people do nice things for others.
It’s clear: Marc-Andre Fleury is a stand up gent. Part II of this project illustrates that, oh hey, by the way, he also happens to be one of the best goaltenders of his generation… so there’s that too. You know, when on top of his game, that there are few, if any, that match his ability in net.
“It is what it is, but at the end of the day, you have two unbelievable goalies,” Letang said. “Fleury has been a No. 1 for his entire career. He’s been a No. 1. He’s always going to be a No. 1 and play over 60 games. To hear the rumors, see the rumors on TV, it’s kind of annoying. Especially when he’s one of the greatest teammates that anyone could ever imagine. His play, too, has been unbelievable throughout his career. I would love to keep him.
– Kris Letang, Fleury’s teammate for 11 seasons (2006-2017) (7)
I’d like to leave it on this quote from Kris Letang. Sure he comes out and says that he’s an awesome guy. We get it, Kris. He’s one of the greatest teammates anybody could ever imagine. What I love about this quote though is that he goes beyond that, saying straight up that his play has been unbelievable throughout his career. This is mentioned as an afterthought! Indicating, clearly, how strong his character is. In other words, most guys would have been alright with him being not that great at hockey if he was simply himself as a teammate.
In Part II we’ll unpack his on ice career and see how he stacks up to some of his most successful peers.