A Flower Blooms in the Steel City

Written by on February 6, 2018

 

It’s still weird to me.

It’s happened before in the past, sure, but it’s been brief. And now, it’s still weird to know that it will always be like this. When I think of who is starting in goal tonight, when I look at the Penguins roster, or heck, even when I boot up EA Sports NHL on the ol’ PS4… Marc-Andre Fleury won’t be there.

And sure, Matt Murray has proven a suitable replacement. He gradually eased into the starting role over the course of two years, which in one, he started an entire Stanley Cup championship run, and the next he started half the regular season, and the back half of yet another playoff run. So the transition was gradual, and the writing was on the wall for a long time.

But man, is it weird to know Marc-Andre Fleury is not a Penguin.

The happy-go-lucky, skinny little French Canadian man who won the hearts of an entire city with his big smile, his big saves, and most of all, his big heart.

You see, the Penguins drafted Fleury when I was just 10 years old in the year 2003. He was a rare sight, in that, goaltenders almost never go first overall in the draft. But GM Craig Patrick, like scouts across the hockey world, saw something special in the kid.

Despite the catastrophic mistake he made a year later in the World Juniors, which cost Canada the championship in overtime.

Here’s that play. It’s… painful.

For what it’s worth, his teammates did make a terrible turnover in the offensive zone before that.

But anyway, in the depths of the Penguins “dark ages” from 2001/02 through 2006/07, this kid was seen as a savior. A second coming, if you will. He was the second of a bunch of guys, including Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney, and some guys named Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who would eventually become the core around which the Penguins would become a premier franchise once again.

But it’d be a long road there. So anticipated was this kid, that they added a special promotional night during the 03/04 season where they gave out special Fleury hockey cards, and he was even on the cover of IceTime, the Penguins in-game magazine, for that night.

They’ve sat on my shelf, prominently displayed, for over 14 consecutive years now.

Man, just LOOK at how sick those pads were.

A lot of this hype probably comes from his first game ever in the NHL, which was a 3-0 loss….. with 46 saves. The team in front of him was bad. Really bad. I don’t kid around when I call it the “Dark Ages”. I still remember going to games and seeing more of those burnt orange seats of the old Mellon Arena, and the most anticipated guys on the ice (provided Le Magnifique wasn’t sitting out due to injury, as he often did towards the end of his playing days), were the likes of Dick Tanrstrom, Rick Jackman, and Rico Fata. Mickey DuPont, anyone? Y’know, the next Mario?

Yeah, he went to Slovakia and was average even there.

But the Penguins averaged over 30 shots against per game, and barely scored. It’s no wonder that, in his 20 starts, Fleury went 4-14-2 (back in the olden days of games ending in ties). His sinking performance was a concern for management – you don’t want a young goalie’s spirit shattered because his team left him out to dry every night. The Penguins loaned him to Hockey Canada for the aforementioned tournament. Upon his return, his $3-million bonus would have to be paid for him to remain in the NHL, which was too much for a franchise notoriously strapped for cash at the time. He refused it, hoping to stay in the NHL, but to no avail. He finished that year back in Juniors, in Cape Breton of the QMJHL.

I heard the stories of him catching a ball thrown to him while he rested on an inflatable chair, floating in Mario Lemieux’s pool… with is foot. I heard how he was nicknamed “frog” as a kid, because his (what’s now known as “butterfly”) style of goaltending, a revolutionary style in the late-90s and early-2000s, reminded people of a frog.
The 04-05 season was cancelled due to the NHL lockout, during which time the Penguins drafted a promising center from Russia named Evgeni Malkin. He had some… troubles… getting the KHL to let him go. So we wouldn’t see him for a while. Then in 2005, in anticipation of the NHL’s triumphant return from the first season cancelled since the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Penguins won the draft lottery and got to select first overall. Their selection was, of course, Sidney Crosby. Combine that with big name signings of John LeClair, Ziggy Palffy, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, and others to bolster a young lineup including Mario and Sid, and hockey was popular in the ‘Burgh again. Big things were happening.

… except not.

Mario retired, Palffy retired, LeClair was always hurt, and everyone else struggled to find chemistry. J.S. Aubin and Sebastian Caron struggled in net. The Penguins were just as bad as they had been for three seasons prior, and fans were looking for someone, anyone, to come and help out.

That’s when Fleury came up to Pittsburgh for good. Towards the end of the season, people often forget, the Penguins went on a tear. Sid found his stride (in basically the greatest three months of Andy Hillbert’s life, playing on Sid’s line). The next year held lots of promise… if the team stayed in Pittsburgh.

I’ll never forget that day in 2007 when Mario Lemieux announced before a raucous crowd at Mellon Arena that a deal for a new arena was done, and the Penguins would stay in Pittsburgh forever. It was already a big year, the Penguins were in the hunt for a playoff spot… and they got it… then they got smacked by the Ottawa Senators.

But that was the beginning. You see, these guys, I basically grew up with them. Their new experiences were my own. Yeah, I watched a lot of hockey before Fleury was drafted, during the glory days of the 90’s, but this was my first real playoffs. My first playoff game I attended. I watched the team win more and more as the players, including Fleury, learned how to win. I watched Max Talbot and Flower’s antics in the locker room, I saw his huge smile every time he made a save, and I heard the stories about how much of a joy he was in the locker room. And the plays he made on the ice, man. This kid was something else.

Fast forward to 07/08. The Penguins made the Stanley Cup Final and lost to the far-more-experienced Detroit Redwings. But the next year, after struggling half the season, under new coach Dan Bylsma I saw yet another magical run all the way to the final, resulting in the first Penguins cup of my lifetime.

And all thanks to perhaps the most iconic save in Penguins history.

Final seconds. Game Seven. Stanley Cup Final. That’s the stuff legends are made of, right there.

A photo of that also still hangs on my wall to this day, almost nine years later.

The following years were rough. Every year, Fleury was one of the best, as were the Penguins, until playoff time. We won’t even talk about what happened in 2012 against the Flyers.

I’m sure he’d be happy about that.

But that’s when Fleury started to become a scapegoat. One bad game, one bad save, and the trade talks among fans began. The excessive criticism. The fans in Pittsburgh just were not going to let Fleury live that series down, and forever he would be under a microscope. Then Matt Murray comes on the scene, and things only got more unfair for the Flower.

More and more, Murray moved in as the starter. People began to forget Fleury, not care about him. But through it all, he was a mentor to young goaltenders in the Penguins organization. He shook it off, and he kept on keeping on. And many fans, like myself, never lost faith in him. There was never reason to – his team was at fault for much of his shortcomings. It’s hard to save a million shots every night… like he has had to do from he beginning.

Murray or Fleury, no worry. He was always teaching the younger ones.

I’m personally very happy he got to start the first half of that most recent cup run. He was classic Fleury, the one we saw in 2008 and 2009. He made huge saves, timely saves, and basically carried the Penguins through that series against Washington. It warms my heart immensely to know that his final game as a Penguin, he got to hoist the Stanley Cup. The image of him handing it off to Murray an allegory to so much going on at the time. Essentially, a passing of the torch.

Tears

Even he knew it was the end. Last season he wore a mask featuring all of the closest friends he made in his time playing in Pittsburgh…

More tears.

And when he was selected by Vegas, you could see the sadness in his eyes. I can’t imagine how he, and Sid, and much of the team had to feel. Here was a best friend, a comrade, a teammate, going away to another city after over a decade.

And good for him.

Fleury is a star now. Not just a well-known goalie. He is top cheese in Vegas. The NHL is always talking about him, and his brand new team, the Golden Knights, are the toast of the NHL so far this season. He deserved every bit of this.

There are hundreds of moments flooding back now. So many little stories, videos, pictures, and whatnot I could share here. But that would require a book, frankly, and I’m sure many people more eloquent than I will write them over the years to come. For now, I will keep them to myself.

So when he returns to Pittsburgh for the first time tonight, as an opponent, it will be emotional for sure. The video tribute will leave every eye, including his, I’m sure, shedding tears. Every goal he lets up, if any, will be bittersweet for the fans in Pittsburgh, as well as his former teammates.

The man who signaled hope for an ailing franchise when I was 10, got the starting job when I was 12, was an essential part of the Cup loss then win when I was 15 and 16, who was always there, always smiling, always working over the years up until winning the cup two more times and finally going away when I was 24. A name that went with the Penguins as easily as Crosby, Lemieux, and Malkin for an entire generation.

For me, a childhood hero.

He’ll be back, and it will be special.

The Flower that bloomed in Pittsburgh.

– Chris


Check out my show The Igloo on Wednesday nights at 5 pm.

Follow me on twitter @The_Igloo_WPPJ


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