Marc-Andre Fleury: loyalty, respect in Pittsburgh

Through thick and thin, Penguins' goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been loyal, hard working, with phenomenal play, and selflessness... a true face of Penguins' Hockey.

For 14 years the crease in Pittsburgh has been filled with athletic saves, breathtaking moments, undeniable quickness and a smile the City of Pittsburgh adores.  The past year however, that smile has faded, just a tad.  Media has descended on the Flower for reasons that don’t pertain to hockey itself, the one thing Marc-Andre Fleury truly loves to talk about.

This isn’t a story about Matt Murray, this honestly has nothing to do with Matt Murray.

The hockey world deserves to know how much Marc-Andre Fleury has meant to the city of Pittsburgh, the Penguins’ team, the management, and the culture of winning the two Stanley Cups this era has produced.

Where it all started for Marc-Andre Fleury

He was young, quick, out of position, and willing to do anything to stop the puck. Marc-Andre Fleury was faster than any goalie in the league at the age of 18. He would stop 50 shots a game, and he was and still is so much fun to watch. His team was awful, but he loved to play the game of hockey, so he did.

He played lots of hockey those first few years. He was sent down to Wilkes-Barre often, not due to play, but because they couldn’t afford him. Marc-Andre Fleury truly has been through the worst of the worst and the best of the best with this franchise. Slowly, but surely the fans in Pittsburgh realized that this young kid who was 180 pounds soaking wet, was something pretty special. Remember, he was in Pittsburgh before Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Staal.

He was the starting block of this modern day dynasty. He was the one that saw this team through the weeds. When Pittsburgh drafted him, Matt Murray was 8 years old. He’s the one who welcomed the stars into town. He is the one who never complained about his workload, or how many grade A scoring chances he faced a night.

He started this.

Yes, Lemieux saved the franchise off the ice, and Crosby saved it on the ice. But, Fleury was there to pick up the pieces on the ice, smile through painful interviews and heartbreaking losses, as the team in Pittsburgh slowly started to turn itself around. From 2004-2007 Fleury probably never thought he would reach superstar status… all he was doing was playing hockey. Those yellow pads and easy way about him, helped lead this team to the promise land.

Cup #1

Marc-Andre Fleury was as important as any other man on the 2009 Cup team. He was lights out in 2008. These two years saw the young kid who just loved to play hockey, and was still just figuring out his way around the NHL turn into a man on a mission.

Remember, Fleury didn’t have a chance to be eased into the NHL. He was given the starting job at the age of 18, and learned everything on the go. That is incredible! After a crushing but necessary loss to Ottawa in 2007, the Penguins and Flower never looked back.

In 2009 with six seconds left in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, Fleury put the team on his back and carried them to the promise land. He will be immortalized in Pittsburgh for that save, and it solidifies the marriage that was the city of Pittsburgh and their beloved Flower.

Marc-Andre Fleury was still young, but not as young as that first Flower I described. He was beyond athletic, but not as out of position as his former self. He was willing to do whatever it took, but now he was a bit more aware of his situation.

The one thing that didn’t alter at all, however, was that he loved to smile, he loved his teammates, and he loved the game. From 2008-2010 Fleury took the next step in becoming the Penguins all-time best teammate, friend, citizen and above all, best goalie.

Patience and trying times for Marc-Andre Fleury

Don’t get me wrong, he won hundreds of games in this span. He actually set records, but his playoff performances struggled. Along with his teammates, they had to do some soul searching. They changed coaches, and they rid themselves of their beloved disco Dan (Dan Bylsma), his big game performance was questioned and he struggled in the post-season.

This might have been the hardest stretch for the Flower and the Penguins, but this stretch might also be the time in which true Penguins fans rallied behind their most tenured member the most. People wanted him out of town. When he faltered against Philly in 2012, no one really knew what to say.

Against the Islanders in 2014, the Penguins suggested he seek a sports physiologist. What they never did however, was stop believing in him. Without question Fleury was their guy, never did they waiver. They didn’t answer calls about trades, they didn’t seek reinforcements, and they didn’t show panic.

Yes, Dan Bylsma trusted Fleury to a fault, but even through his postseason struggles, they did everything in their power to build up their goaltender.

They got him a new coach, were more careful about his game count, and gave him the tools he needed to win. The franchise committed themselves to this goaltender. They did it because they knew that Fleury was fully committed to them. It was mutual, and Fleury, although admittedly struggling with playoff hockey, continued to push forward, as a Penguin.

What is often lost is all of his remarkable regular seasons. It is also forgotten that he truly only had two poor post-seasons. He wasn’t great against the Habs in 2010, but he was not the reason they lost. Tampa Bay was the same. He struggled against the Flyers and Islanders.

That quick flash of the glove, and breathtaking split saves never changed though. The smile never wavered, and love for the game stayed unshaken throughout it all. To watch from the outside, the loyalty between team and player on such a unique and scrutinized position and situation was unbelievable.

What this time also taught us is that as much as things began and ended with Crosby and Malkin, they also began and ended with Fleury. Crosby and Malkin took their knocks and handled them with grace, but Fleury took some of the hardest punches for those few years.

He never shied away from them, and always answered honestly. His relationship with the city of Pittsburgh was tested, but it prevailed. Against all odds Fleury, and that never-ending quick smile, return to heroism,  but this time as a near folk hero. No, Fleury is not the backbone of this franchise, but he’s been the main organ… so to speak.

The best teammate in professional sports

Who would have thought that the player described above would have to endure so much more. But, when he completed the best regular season of his NHL career in 2015-16, and an injury sidelined him at the start of the playoffs, his true meaning to Pittsburgh and the relationship would be tested once again.

Not in the net and watching with that still quick smile and still undying love for the game, the Penguins fans realized something. They realized that they love this man they call Flower. After watching him grow up, and blossom into a wonderful, successful, talented, and respected player and person.

They realized that they wanted to see him win.

Nothing against Murray, but the city of Pittsburgh and the Penguins fans around the globe realized how much Fleury had meant to this group. Without fail, they supported Murray and cheered him to a Stanley Cup win. But, there was a foul taste in the mouths of fans, and teammates alike, that Fleury got cheated.

The man that always saved the day. The man who always got the short end of the stick. The man that always took the ultimate fall for them, was being cheated out of something he deserved so much. Murray deserved it, and was and is a true NHL starter, but many teammates, I’m sure, wished there was way for both goalies to play.

You see, at this point last year, Fleury became the ultimate teammate. You saw it when he wouldn’t hold the Cup above his head for more than 10-20 seconds. With the mention of his name at the Stanley Cup parade a week later, instead of stepping forward, he slumped backward to avoid attention.

He didn’t feel like it was His Cup.

That is truly sad because although he was and is often the team’s scapegoat, he’s not the backbone. Don’t forgot how much Fleury has seen, how many times he’s taken the fall, and how many times he and the Penguins worked together to pick each other up again.

What followed next season was tough. Fleury didn’t play much, and when he did, sometimes he struggled. What never wavered, however, was something that everyone should never question with Fleury. He loves the city of Pittsburgh, and he loves to play the game. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more obvious that he may not be able to play the game he loves in the city he loves.

What happened this spring in the first two rounds of the playoffs for Fleury was magical. He got his chance, and he passed the test with flying colours. The saves, the Fleury chants, the unquestionable feeling of joy every time the city saw their guy make a key save.

His play was his best in a while, and finally people started to realize how much the Flower truly meant to this organization. When Murray replaced Fleury in game 4, no one wished ill will… at least rationally they didn’t. I’m sure throughout the organization, and throughout the fan base people took it hard.

Fleury himself, took it the hardest.

To know that your coach doesn’t believe in you, that he might respect you, but at the end of the day he doesn’t think you can win… that hurts. Especially, when you have been through as much has Fleury has.

On media day, the day before game 1, Fleury sounded grateful to the fans, Pittsburgh and his loyal teammates, especially the veterans. When asked about why he was pulled, his smile dropped and he seemed hurt and undeniably upset.

His coach unexplainably pulled him, and took away his chance, and of course he should be mad, angry and looking for answers. He may have received an “explanation,” but I’m sure that will never truly suffice to him. Sullivan was in a tough spot and yes, it played out and worked well for him. It was gutsy, but again, Fleury got the short end of the stick, and this time it might have stung more than ever.

Development of Matt Murray

Fleury has given the city of Pittsburgh maybe the biggest gift of all, he helped develop Matt Murray. He gave Murray something that he never had, a legit NHL starting goalie role to lean on, while he worked through the riggers of an NHL season.

Fleury, in maybe his last act of undying selflessness and teamwork, put his feelings aside once and for all. He made sure that the team he loves, the City that was home for 14 years, and his best friends would have a goalie guarding their net that was more than capable. I don’t think people realize how difficult it was for Fleury this year. He could have derailed so many plans, but he didn’t. I hope people realize this.

In closing, I hope the Penguins can find a way to win the Cup. I hope Sidney Crosby passes the Cup to Fleury first. I hope Fleury accepts it, and skates around for as long as he wants. Fleury’s loyalty for his franchise is unmatched by so many. Yes, the franchise was loyal to him, but he made it work through the toughest of circumstances.

The world of hockey is painful, and Fleury has felt his share, but he has done it all in a Penguins’ uniform, and for that, he will be respected. What has never changed is that Fleury loves to play the game, and he loves the City of Pittsburgh and he loves the Penguins.

Based on this season’s storyline, none of those things will change. I believe all the fans and all of Fleury’s teammates truly want him to be able to play the game he loves, wherever that is, it’s just a shame he couldn’t do it with the Penguins.

This article hasn’t even touched the surface of the personal relationships that Fleury has made with teammates, owners, coaches and more around the organization. Just remember that this is a man that created a helmet to honor his friends, and wears his heart on his sleeve and his mask.

Take five minutes and look up Fleury on Google, and you will see a swarm of quotes about his relentless love for his friends. This is truly a special human being.

I hope Matt Murray is successful, but if he falters and his post-season play dips… because it will eventually, I hope the Penguins’ faithful are kinder to him than they were to Fleury. I hope they embrace him instead of degrade him.

Remember, Marc-Andre Fleury was looked at the same as Murray after 2009, and the Cup runs. Things happen and rough patches occur no matter who you are. If these are the last few games Fleury plays in a Penguins’ jersey, savor them Pens’ fans, even if he isn’t playing. His role on the team is engrained in everything that happens on the ice.

You will never have a goalie like him again; a work ethic that matches Sidney Crosby, a smile bigger than the Allegheny River, and a heart as big as any Primanti Bros sandwich.

City and goalie will never be so connected again, in the city of Pittsburgh. From on the verge of being sold, to the ultimate prize, and back and forth, he has seen it all. If he gets the honor of lifting that Cup one more time, cheer a little louder for him, if anyone deserves it, it’s Fleury, the 18-year-old with yellow pads and a dream.

The goalie that struggled, but pulled through deserves it. The quick smile and faster than life glove hand deserves it. The goalie that perfected the cartwheel, and seemed to maintain his kid-like ways for far longer than most, deserves it. The man who never shied away from criticism, and always took the hit when the team needed him to, deserves it.

The best goalie in franchise history deserves it.

Marc-Andre Fleury deserves it.

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