As a hockey player, Marc-Andre Fleury has pedigree. Drafted first overall by the Penguins in 2003, he claimed the starting netminder’s job in 2005-06 and kept it for a decade. He sealed the franchise’s third Stanley Cup when he slid across the crease to deny Detroit’s Nick Lidstrom with a second remaining in Game 7 on June 12, 2009, and owns every goaltending record in team history by a wide margin.
When Fleury’s name is mentioned, though, it’s hard not to think about the person behind the mask. His infectious smile, joy for life, and affection for his teammates and fans have transcended the sport and made him one of Pittsburgh’s most beloved athletes.
When a concussion sidelined Fleury last April, rookie Matt Murray made the most of an opportunity that looked like it would eventually be his regardless. After a record-setting 2014-15 in the AHL, Murray emerged as Pittsburgh’s top goaltending prospect, then impressed in his 13 NHL games last year. He went on to backstop the Penguins all the way to the Stanley Cup, earning the starting job and a three-year contract extension in the process.
It’s made for a trying year for Fleury. He had to get used to a new cadence, going from a career in which he’s started nearly every game when healthy to an unfamiliar backup role. He dealt with uncertainty through the March 1 trade deadline, when it seemed the Penguins might look to move him with the expansion draft and Murray’s new contract looming.
But Fleury’s team-first attitude never wavered. He continued to exemplify the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, which just so happen to be the criteria for the Masterton Trophy, voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Fleury is the Pittsburgh chapter’s 2017 nominee.
“I think it’s flattering” to be known as a great teammate, Fleury said. “I learned at a young age that you’ve got to win as a team; perform as a team. To me, my teammates are important, and I care about them off the ice and on the ice.”
It shows. Fleury’s backups over the years have consistently praised him as a mentor and role model, and he’s been no different in his support of Murray. Even if, this time, the starter and backup roles are reversed.
“We see each other every day, so I don’t want to be coming in and being angry every day; it doesn’t make any sense,” Fleury said. “We’re on the same team and I’ll do what I can to help the guys be successful and win out there. That’s all that matters in the end.”
He’s doing exactly that. Because, along with being an upbeat person and an exemplary teammate, Fleury is still a very good goaltender.
Since Dec. 1, Fleury has gone 12-3-3, with a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. His numbers since the trade deadline passed March 1 are even more impressive, with a 3-1-2 record, 1.87 goals-against and .944 save percentage.
That might have had something to do with getting more comfortable with his new normal. “Maybe earlier on, I think I had to find how to be successful when I’d go in without playing every single night, or if I hadn’t played in a while,” he said.
It also might have something to do with the security of knowing where he’d be down the stretch and through the playoffs.
“Prior to the deadline, I was a lot of times in my head,” Fleury said. “It was tough and a little bit stressful. When it was done, it was nice just to be able to relax about it and try to have some fun and play hockey.”
At 32, Fleury is still all about having fun, like with the pranks he’s known for playing on his teammates. He won’t reveal any he’s responsible for this year – “The guy doesn’t know it’s me yet,” he said – but it’s fitting that, even when it comes to trying to keep things light, Fleury’s teammates follow his lead.
“I saw one this year; it wasn’t me, though. We were at UPMC [Lemieux Sports Complex] and one of the rookies’ cars was parked in front. There was a window marker and a sign saying everybody should sign all the windows on the car. So, when the guy came out, there was everybody’s signatures on the car.
“I got a little giggle out of that one. They’re coming up with good ones, finally. But they always blame me.”
Behind the smile, though, Fleury remains a fierce competitor. “I love to play, and I love to battle on the ice,” he said, and that – along with it being improbable to retain both a $5.75M (Fleury) and $3.75M (Murray) netminder in the salary-cap era – is why he’s still likely to find himself in a new situation as a No. 1 goalie next year.
For now? He remains focused on the game he loves.
“To me, that’s not the game. That’s the business thing,” he said. “I love practice; I love playing the games. I love to get out there and play hockey.