A FLOWER THAT BLOOMED IN PITTSBURGH

MAF in goal

Former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save during a Stanley Cup playoff game.  His surname is derived from the French word for “flower.”

Marc-Andre is gone.  For sure.  Beyond any measure of doubt.  The stellar and uniquely gifted goaltender of the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins has officially become netminder for the NHL’s shiny new expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights.  (See what they did there with the name?  I guess all “nights” in Las Vegas must be “golden,” but I wouldn’t know because I’m apparently one of only twelve people in Youngstown who’ve never been. I’m also at a loss over the missing “Las.”  Oh, well.  I digress.)

There has not been a more emotional departure of this nature since BJ Hunnicutt hugged his surgical colleague Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and bade him farewell at the M*A*S*H 4077 when the Korean hostilities (which did not last nearly as many years as the television series) came to a conclusion.   When Hawkeye’s helicopter lifted off the pad to take him home, he saw that his best wartime buddy had spelled out in painted white rocks a word BJ found way too difficult to even utter:  Good-bye.  I think if the hockey fans of Pittsburgh could have found a way, they would have done the same thing for Fleury from the top of Mt. Washington.

So what exactly endeared Marc-Andre Fleury to the denizens of The Burgh and legions of Penguin fans in North America to cause an such an outpouring of bittersweet affection?

Well, for one thing, he was a pretty good goalie.  Brought onboard when he was 18, Marc-Andre spent 13 seasons backstopping the Pens, collecting three Cup championships and posting a 2.58 career goals against average, often contorting himself into positions thought impossible for homo sapiens in efforts to keep a 6 ounce disc of vulcanized rubber from going past him into the net.

But great statistics and highlight-reel saves are just one part of the picture.  This reminds me of that scene in Patton when German Field Marshal Rommel asks an aide for background on the famed American Army general and gets a recitation of Patton’s resume.  “You haven’t told me anything about the man!” chastises Rommel.

Well, there are three things that stick in my mind about Marc-Andre Fleury the man.

First is his sense of humor.  I could probably name a few goalies who took themselves a wee bit too seriously, even one perhaps that wore a Pens sweater, but Fleury was never one of those guys.  He could be self-effacing.  He could be a prankster popping out of a teammates hockey bag in the locker room.  He could be kissing the crossbar during a game when an opponent zinged a slapshot off the bar behind him.  Or he could do a spot-on serious mashup from Slapshot.

Second is Fleury’s concept of teamwork in the ultimate team sport.  First of all, no other position player in the four major pro sports is expected to be on the field, diamond, court, or ice for the entire game like a goaltender.  He spends over twice as much time on the ice as your most elite forwards or defensemen.  He’s the last line of a team’s defense.  For woeful teams whose defensemen resemble fence posts or have forwards whose familiarity with the rink extends only to the offensive zone, he’s the only line of defense.  And, arguably, no one’s flaws are more noticeable than a goalie’s because those mistakes are drawn to everyone’s attention by flashing red lights.  And if he has the misfortune of being scored on at the visiting rink, then he suffers the additional indignities of blasting horns and sirens, cheering multitudes, and the occasional bottom-feeding freshwater fish that gets lobbed onto the ice.

It’s a tough gig with a lot of pressure and no one can blame any goaltender if he occasionally gets a little out of sorts because of a bad day at the office.  Or because the career clock ticks louder with each passing game, each passing season.  But Marc-Andre Fleury handled ALL of this with such grace and – well, I don’t know if it can be aptly described because it so seldom happens.  Only the players and coaches know for sure, of course, but all of the evidence points to one simple conclusion: Marc-Andre Fleury is the consummate team player.  He supported and respected his mates when on the bench, played his heart out for them when on the ice, and seemingly took that same cheerful level-headedness with him everywhere else he went when not wearing pads and a mask.  His new team has players now through the same expansion draft through which Marc-Andre was acquired, but Vegas doesn’t have a team yet.  And they probably won’t until some of that Fleury magic rubs off on ‘em.

Here’s the third and final thing.  I will always remember Marc-Andre Fleury for something he did off the ice.  The UPMC commercial with his wife Veronique and daughters Estelle and Scarlett.

And the outtakes are priceless, too.

I think we all caught a glimpse of the real Marc-Andre Fleury there, wouldn’t you agree?  The genuine, human, flesh-and-blood, father-husband-regular guy who just happened to be among the elite goaltenders of the National Hockey League.

So, Marc-Andre, you’re a rare Flower, a unique specimen that even Phipps Conservatory has never seen.  You’re leaving a shining city of rivers for a brightly lit jewel in the desert.  You have a new team, a new bunch of guys who will be counting on you.  But please, remember this:  No matter what, you always have a home in Pittsburgh.

And, yeah, it’s really hard to say, so let me spell it out for you in the most meaningful way BJ and I can:

Goodbye

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