LAS VEGAS — When Sidney Crosby speaks to the media, he always attracts a horde of reporters. Most are contorted as if they were doing yoga just to get a few quotes from the arguably best player in the world. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain was holding the Stanley Cup after the NHL Awards Wednesday before entering the cramped makeshift interview room at T-Mobile arena, the home of the brand new Vegas Golden Knights.
But this night was different.
While Crosby spoke, a mass of around 25 reporters gathered around an empty podium. They stood there for about 30 minutes waiting to hear from Marc-Andre Fleury, who was picked by Vegas after he was demoted in Pittsburgh. Finally, after conversations and goodbyes to his Cup winning former teammates, the Golden Knights goaltender stepped up to the lectern.
Fleury is 32 now. He was 19 when he began playing for Pittsburgh. The netminder has spent over 40 percent of his life wearing an angry Penguin on his chest, winning the Cup three times along the way
“It was time,” Fleury said Wednesday night, exactly 14 years after he was drafted by the Penguins.
Time came in the form of Matt Murray, who seized on an injury to Fleury late in the regular season in 2016.
Murray posted a 15-6 record, .923 save percentage, and a goals-against average of 2.07 in the Pens’ run to the Cup last year. In two games, Fleury’s save percentage was .875 and he allowed an average of 3.04 goals per game.
After that, he became clear Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh was limited.
This season, Flurey began the postseason as the Penguins starter after Murray got injured just minutes before Game One against Columbus. After 15 games, a healthy Murray replaced him, forcing Fleury to watch on the bench as everyone else had success.
Soon after the Penguins’ championship, news came that Fleury waived the no-movement clause in his contract, allowing him to be exposed in the Golden Knights Expansion Draft.
“I’m sure it hasn’t been an easy couple of years being in that situation,” Crosby told reporters Wednesday. “I think sometimes you forget how difficult it is just because he handles it so well.”
Ten days after winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh, the French-Canadian could not wipe the smile off his face as he donned his new black and gold jersey.
“It’s a little different,” Fleury said of the new sweater after spending over a decade clad in Penguins gear. “I’m thankful for the opportunity and I will wear it with pride.”
Now the Golden Knights just have to get regular folks to wear those jerseys with pride.
“I’ll give it everything I have to win some games,” Fleury said after receiving a warm reception by the fans in attendance. “I’ll try to get into the community, meet people, and spread the word about our team.”
The word, it seems, has not fully gotten out yet. I talked to multiple denizens of the Las Vegas area who had no idea there was a hockey team that was picking its roster in an arena just off The Strip. There were some people who knew about the club — they just didn’t know what it was called. While there were excited new fans, the team will have to work hard. With so much entertainment in the few square miles near the arena, the Knights are trying hard to win over locals and entice tourists.
“I hope I can get out there and try to promote our team and hockey itself,” Fleury said.
The goaltender is the face of a franchise that will have ever-changing faces around him, with trades, a massive stockpile of draft picks, and few players signed after this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury is already being recognized in public, and starting to connect with fans in his new city. pic.twitter.com/kzCpeSj50q
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 22, 2017
To sell hockey in a place were it was 115 degrees the day Fleury was selected, Vegas got lucky. Fleury is a warm and affable man who never sulks. When I talked to Fleury during the Eastern Conference Final last season, he smiled when I asked about Murray and began to effusively praise the young man who was taking his job.
Fleury is an extremely nice man without much of an ego. He enjoys life. He enjoys helping people out.
“I think the experience he has is going to go a long way with helping the team here,” Crosby said. “You really couldn’t get a better guy to do it.”
One day in Vegas and we’ve already seen some new friendships🌸 pic.twitter.com/dybfsjpOkQ
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 23, 2017
Headline photo: Chris Gordon
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