Meet Marc-Andre’ Fleury, The Man Who Cannot Frown (Observations from the Edge, with the Courier’s Lee Kann)

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Marc-Andre Fleury won three Stanley Cup championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last offseason, he moved on to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who, in their first season, are in the NHL Stanley Cup Final. Their opponent? The Washington Capitals, their first appearance in the Cup Final since 1998. (AP PHOTO)

Baltimore film director Barry Levinson, of “Rain Man” and “Bugsy” fame, made his first feature film in 1982 with a little gem called “Diner,” a film that would produce future film stars Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Ellen Barkin, Tim Daly, and comedian Paul Riser.  In the film, the buzz word was “a smile.”  (Technically, that’s two words, but if it was something fun or a thrill or cool or stupendous in some way, it was “a smile.”)  Personally, my biggest smile in sports was last June, spending 90 minutes on the ice in Nashville, celebrating with the Penguins and their fifth Stanley Cup…an event I was hoping for this June, although this time I foresaw the ultra-drama of Marc-Andre’ Fleury facing his longtime Pittsburgh Penguins.  

Now that would have been “a smile.”  

The Pens will not be there, but the Vegas Golden Knights’ Fleury will be, for a fifth time in his 14-year career.  And man, does he have a smile!  In fact, Marc-Andre’ Fleury is a man incapable of frowning.  He’s like Eat ‘n’ Park’s smiley cookie, Batman’s Joker and Disney’s Dory all rolled into one.  Whether it’s a locker room interview or a post-game one with NBCSN’s Pierre McGuire, Fleury cannot keep a straight face.  Take note next Monday, May 28, as he continues to dazzle the hockey world.  When interviewed, count the seconds before he cops a smile.  You’ll notice he has no capacity in keeping a straight face, let alone frowning. And what would he have to frown about?  His e’lan is obvious and infectious.  

When Vegas wrapped up the Western Conference championship last Sunday night, May 20, reeling off four straight wins after Winnipeg won the opener, and the realization of proceeding to the Cup Finals set in for team Vegas, every player came to Fleury and engulfed him with pure thankfulness.  This was not the usual game-win-hug and pat on the shoulder of a “good job, nice win” display.  This was elongated body contact brimming with love and affection.  Each player on that team did the same.  It was a love fest, like at a family wedding.  I’ve never witnessed such adoration of a teammate in winning a series that was not winning the Cup itself.  And that’s what Marc-Andre’ Fleury means to his team.  Then in the handshake line that concludes every playoff series, almost every Winnipeg Jets player had something of praise for Fleury.  You could see it in their body language and expression.  And of course, Fleury was smiling.

For Fleury, the journey started last June in Nashville when he passed the torch, literally, by handing the Stanley Cup to Matt Murray.  Fleury knew he was gone via the expansion draft, and he even facilitated the move by waiving the no-trade clause in his contract to clear the way for a smooth transition.  Rules dictated that any player with a no-move clause had to be protected.  That meant that Matt Murray would be exposed and he certainly would be in Vegas now.  And Fleury knew it was time to move on because he still had number one goaltender left in him and was not content to ride into the sunset as Murray’s backup.

Fleury left a lot of Pittsburghers proud.  I was proud myself to be there for that final cup-winning game in Nashville and I was there for Fleury’s first game in a Pens uniform after being the first overall draft pick in 2003 by then general manager Craig Patrick.  In between, Fleury won some 375 games and three Stanley Cups with the Pens. It’s interesting to note that Fleury’s numbers as a junior player were way less than spectacular at 71-94, and yet he was the first overall selection in that ’03 NHL draft.  That might be considered “a smile.”

At the expansion draft in, where else, Las Vegas, mere days after Fleury raised The Cup for the third time in Pittsburgh, he came out onto the Vegas stage and donned his Golden Knights jersey, with that smile, of course.  If only anyone knew what was to come.  What was to come was the murder of 58 people at a Las Vegas concert just eight days before the opening puck drop of the first game of the first season for the Vegas Golden Knights.  Las Vegas was flabbergasted at the carnage and the mood of the city was not “let’s play hockey.”  Ex-Penguin Deryk Engelland, who lives in Las Vegas, led a moving tribute from the ice before the game that brought the team and the city together. 

They have never looked back.

The Vegas Golden Knights have shattered every expansion team record that you can think of this season—and the rock, the anchor, the foundation—has been Fleury.  Every Vegas player has touted such all season. I imagine Fleury, a Montreal native, who played his entire pro career in Pittsburgh, must have wondered about the hockey ambiance in 100 degree weather in the Mohave desert.  There is no wondering now except will it take 4, 5, 6 or 7 games for this team to win the Stanley Cup.

Fleury has become so recognized, and not just in Vegas.  The entire hockey world knows Marc-Andre’ Fleury and that puck-eating grin.  I assert that Fleury never attained this kind of notoriety in the 14 years he spent in Pittsburgh.  This newfound fame for Fleury is so well-deserved, but not something he covets.  He covets The Cup.  While I have laid such cliches on goaltenders to the point of ad nauseam, still I’m obliged to say it…Fleury is playing lights-out, beside himself, insanely, performing headstands and cartwheels.  He is the Cirque du Soleil of goalies.  Simply put, he is playing at a level a goaltender must play to win The Cup.  

Besides Fleury and Engelland, there are other ex-Pens on this team in the form of David Perron, Ryan Reeves (who was a Penguin just a couple months ago) and tough sniper James Neal, who scored the first two Vegas goals in team history.  In fact, this entire team is made up of spare parts.  Some players were outright outcasts, others like Fleury were left unprotected.  It’s a Frankenstein of a team…the Vegas Golden Frankenknights.

Another ingredient of Fleury is being renowned for pranks in the locker room, like hiding inside a teammate’s duffle bag where sticks, pads and skates would be.  Suur-priise!  In game three of the last series with Winnipeg, Fleury tickled the ear of the Jets’ Blake Wheeler from behind during a scrum behind the net.  Most players would have put a headlock on Wheeler at that point.  Not Fleury…he’d rather tickle.  This does not mean Fleury can be pushed around on the ice.  He will defend his goal like a badger, using his stick when called to, and defend a teammate, too…but it’s without venom or malice, unlike so many other hockey players.

However, besides the humor, charm and smiles, it’s the numbers in these playoffs that define Fleury on the ice…12 wins to only 3 losses, a goals-against-average of 1.68 per game and a save percentage of .947, and four…count them…four shutouts in 15 games. Those numbers are staggering.  Those are championship numbers.  Couldn’t happen to a better man.  In Vegas, he is the unofficial captain on a team that has no captain.  There is no question…he is the leader of this team.    

I could go on and on about the man but you get the gist by now.  He is a singular player at this moment in time…adept at acrobatics, inept at frowning.  His facial muscles just can’t govern it.  All he wants is to have his name, once again, on a trophy he can’t keep and get a ring that’s too big to wear.  As Kevin Bacon’s character Fenwick would say…”that’s a smile.”

Lee Kann is a media producer and freelance writer for the New Pittsburgh Courier.  Contact: shooting16bl@gmail.com

STANLEY CUP FINAL 2018 SCHEDULE

Monday, May 28, 8 p.m.: Washington Capitals @ Vegas Golden Knights | NBC-TV

Wednesday, May 30, 8 p.m.: Washington Capitals @ Vegas Golden Knights | NBCSN-TV

Saturday, June 2, 8 p.m.: Vegas Golden Knights @ Washington Capitals | NBCSN-TV

Monday, June 4, 8 p.m.: Vegas Golden Knights @ Washington Capitals | NBC-TV

*Thursday, June 7, 8 p.m.: Washington Capitals @ Vegas Golden Knights | NBC-TV

*Sunday, June 10, 8 p.m.: Vegas Golden Knights @ Washington Capitals | NBC-TV

*Wednesday, June 13, 8 p.m.: Washington Capitals @ Vegas Golden Knights | NBC-TV

* – if necessary

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