All a Fleury
Penguins star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury brought home the Stanley Cup with his lightning-speed save in the final moments of Game 7. In this exclusive interview, FSN's Paul Alexander reveals the man behind the mask.
In what has been a whirlwind of celebration and jubilation, there is still just one image that is etched forever in the minds of Pittsburgh Penguins fans: It is the desperate lunging save of Marc-Andre Fleury in the final seconds of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
That save and its significance will forever change the long and lean goaltender with the 100,000-watt smile that doesn't have an off switch. The young man branded with the "can't win the big one" label had silenced his critics and had proved correct his coaches and teammates who had unwavering confidence in their man between the pipes.
The validation goes back to 2003 when the Penguins and then-general manager Craig Patrick traded up to make Fleury the No. 1 overall selection in the draft. It continued with the $35 million contract extension offered and accepted two years ago.
Fleury may indeed be happy-go-lucky and actually play the game of hockey just because he loves it, but don't let that smile and Opie Taylor demeanor fool you. Fleury is a fierce competitor and admits there is a certain satisfaction with shutting up the naysayers. You remember the so-called experts who said Fleury would never win a Cup and that goaltending would be the difference between Pittsburgh and Detroit.
"Most of the people that talk never played hockey before," Fleury says. "I really don't worry too much about what people say, but when you can prove them wrong, that's pretty good I guess. I don't spend any time thinking about it, but after the fact, it feels pretty good." That's about as vengeful as Fleury can get, but he does admit that the smile may hide a certain intensity that is a prerequisite to compete at the level at which he excels.
"I think Marc is definitely an elite goaltender," coach Dan Bylsma explains. "First and foremost, there has to be a certain talent level and he has that. There also has to be a mentality, and that is there as well."
There are only certain positions in sports that absolutely require that certain mentality that Bylsma referred to. Goaltender, place-kicker, closer and cornerback demand short-term memories and the ability to bounce back from being public enemy No. 1 that has killed the dreams of their fans and teammates with a soft goal, a shank or a waist-high fastball.
"Marc's ability to stop the next one is the key," Bylsma says. "You know with him that after one [puck] gets by him, he will definitely stop the next one. He's that way in practice. If you beat him once, he'll get you on the next one. That is an elite goaltender's mindset. He will always bounce back after a bad goal or a bad game."
Fleury also appears to be oblivious to the criticism or the lack of respect he may get in the press. He playfully apologized to the thousands of fans at the Penguins Stanley Cup celebration parade for "letting in" a few soft goals. However, after his MVP-worthy performance throughout the postseason, his apology certainly wasn't necessary.
"Marc answers questions with actions," Bylsma says. "He just lets his game speak for him. He also continues to get better and has continued to improve every year he's played."
Bylsma says the news media and the fans like to reduce players' value and ability to a simple snapshot. Before the Cup-winning effort last season, Fleury was associated with the fluke goal in the World Juniors against Team USA in 2004 that cost Canada the gold medal or with the failure to force a Game 7 against Detroit in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. That prompted the "can't win the big one" whispers that grew louder as the playoffs unfolded. "That snapshot right now is Marc making that save against [Nicklas] Lidstrom," Bylsma says. "That is what everyone will see now. He is an elite goaltender."
There are also some other "snapshots" from the Penguins' run to the Cup that captured Fleury at his absolute best. There was the toe save against Jeff Carter in Game 2 against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins went on to win that game in overtime. Then there was the glove save on an Alexander Ovechkin breakaway in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals. Even before the dramatic stop on Lidstrom in the final seconds, he robbed Dan Cleary on a breakaway late in Game 6 in Pittsburgh.
"I do have flashbacks when I see the highlights," Fleury says. "I see them fairly often and I get goose bumps. I can't help but smile and think about what we did."
Fleury's much-anticipated turn with the Cup was Aug. 6. His first official moment involved spooning some cereal and milk from professional sports' most-famous and storied piece of hardware. The lingering aroma of stale champagne did nothing to diminish the special day that he had earned. It was time to party with more than 200 family and friends in his hometown of Sorel, Quebec.
"It was a crazy day," Fleury recalls. "It was so hectic, but I wanted everyone to get the chance to see it and share it with as many people as possible. The day just flew by and everyone had a blast." That is despite a rough start to the day.
After the ceremonial cereal, Fleury took Lord Stanley for a ride on the lake in his boat. Minutes into the voyage, the boat stalled, and Fleury and the Cup were stranded. One of Fleury's neighbors came to his rescue and quickly found the problem: A rope had attached itself to the propeller and shut down the engine. Disaster avoided.
"Just as we got the rope untangled, one of my buddies came by on his Sea-doo," Fleury says. "He was just trying to help, but the whole thing was pretty funny."
It was like Christmas coming early for Fleury, who loved sharing his day with the Cup with his family and friends. As for the actual Christmas holiday, Fleury will most likely celebrate the holidays in Pittsburgh. "I don't have time to go back. I don't know the schedule. If I have a couple of days maybe I'll go back home and have a Christmas party, but otherwise we'll just stay in Pittsburgh."
Whether or not Fleury does make it home, he will be with his family and his girlfriend. "I like everything about Christmas," Fleury says. "It's so cold, a little snow. Everybody's happy, shopping, buying presents and good food, too."
It's hard to imagine any Christmas present, past or present, compared with the Stanley Cup rings Fleury and his teammates earned last year. Despite all of the celebrations and the satisfaction of finally reaching the mountaintop, there are no signs of complacency on this team. "I am still hungry," Fleury says. "I would love to do it again, and I am anxious to get back to work and get back with the guys."
Hockey has been a part of Fleury's life since he was 5. His dad played, and that's just what kids in Canada do. He didn't have much interest in or ability to score goals, but he sure thought that goalie gear was cool. He also loved diving around on the ice. Fleury also learned that after he had officially declared himself a goaltender, the best part was that he never came off the ice. He got to play the entire game.
Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur quickly became his idols. It should come as no surprise that, aside from Brodeur's obvious skill, Fleury was impressed that he could always see the pure joy Brodeur had in playing the game. He laughed; he talked with everyone on the ice, and oh yeah, he won big games and made great saves.
Slowly and surely, Fleury's skills took on larger-than-life dimensions. The catlike quickness with the glove and the Gumby-like flexibility in the legs propelled him to Cape Breton in Quebec's famous Major Juniors. His four years there were so exceptional that his No. 29 jersey was retired recently. At the time, he didn't think it could get any better than that.
That was until the clock finally hit double zeroes at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and Fleury's life would never be the same. He certainly plans on adding to the legacy and, at 24 years old, the odds are great that he will. But with his name on the Cup and his stamp all over the deciding game, Fleury has arrived.
There was also a historic trip to the White House to meet with President Obama, who said the players looked good without their playoff beards and that he thought it must be pretty good to be a sports fan in Pittsburgh.
That day started with Fleury and couple of his teammates skating with some inner-city kids in Washington, D.C. "It was pretty cool," Fleury says, "to meet some kids, teach them tips about hockey. They all wanted to know how do a butterfly."
Potential in sports simply means "hasn't done it yet," and when all is said and done, when pundits and fans debate who is the best of the best, championships provide the separation. So while Fleury hasn't realized all of that wonderful potential and shouldn't be considered the best of all time just yet, his pedigree has always been there, and now his dossier has changed dramatically. Some things that probably will never change though are the personality and the attitude.
"I just love to play hockey," Fleury says. "I love to be around the guys. Since the offseason was so short, I didn't get in to the gym as much as I would have liked. I wanted to put on a little weight, but I can't wait to get back to work and do what we can to do this again."
One thing is for sure. The Penguins will never follow a script like that again to a championship – fall dangerously close to missing the playoffs, fire the head coach and then go on an unprecedented run to and through the postseason and knock off the defending Stanley Cup champs in their building in a seventh and deciding game. Hollywood doesn't come up with anything that unbelievable, but there is also another certainty to evolve from what just transpired this past hockey season. Fleury will never be referred to again as the guy who can't win the big one, and it's hard to imagine the experts' giving someone other than the Penguins a decided edge in the goaltending matchup.
Penguins fans have been lucky enough to watch Fleury grow up right before their eyes. Do you remember – at 18 – he was the youngest goaltender ever to start an NHL game?
Many thought when he stood on his head and staved off elimination in Game 5 against the Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final that Fleury had arrived. He was close, and he had taken an extremely crucial step toward becoming the goalie that could help you win it all. Yes, "The Flower," as many call him (Fleury is similar to the French word for "flower"), blossomed and the result was exactly what everyone including Fleury had dreamed of: Perfection.
Not even the softest of goals or the most embarrassing of falls could wipe that trademark smile from Fleury's face. So now that the ultimate goal has been achieved, and the future appears even brighter than those pearly whites, Pittsburgh might want to look in to defraying some of its energy costs and find a way to tap in to one of the Penguins' greatest resources – Marc-Andre Fleury's mega-watt smile.
Paul Alexander brings more than 20 years of experience covering Pittsburgh sports. Paul, who joined the FSN network in 2006, serves as the primary Steelers reporter. He worked for KDKA TV and Radio as the morning anchor beginning in 1998 before moving to the sports department in 2001. In 2003, Paul added KDKA's nightly radio sports call-in show to his TV duties. He is a graduate of Penn State University.