The fact that Marc-Andre Fleury has just left the Vegas Golden Knights’ practice facility and is having trouble carrying on a conversation over the phone is actually quite remarkable. He can’t talk because he’s being inundated with autograph seekers and, being Marc-Andre Fleury, he feels the need to make each of them feel important.
“I just got out of the rink and there’s a bunch of people here,” Fleury says sheepishly. “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”
No need to apologize when you enter the last day of 2017 with a 7-1-1 record and sit in first place in the Western Conference. As an expansion team. What the Golden Knights are doing this season is unprecedented not only in NHL history, but in the annals of professional sports in North America. Prior to this season, the best expansion team in any professional sport was the 1993-94 Florida Panthers, who went 33-34-17 and missed the playoffs by one point. The Golden Knights are on pace to shatter the best records by the best expansion teams in professional sports, along with the notion that a first-year team has to be putridly bad before it can ever think of being good and that you can’t build a solid organizational future and compete at the same time. (Turns out $500 million buys you a pretty good start these days, which it should.)
There were players who might have had a better calendar year in 2017 than Marc-Andre Fleury and there were those who may have accomplished more, but no player in the world was more front-and-center in the hockey world’s biggest events than THN’s 2017 Newsmaker of the Year. You could argue that Fleury was a central character in the three biggest stories of the year: 1. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ run to their second straight Stanley Cup; 2. The Golden Knights’ inaugural season and their shocking ascension to the NHL’s elite, and; 3. Concussions.
As far as the Penguins are concerned, things could have turned out so much differently had Fleury decided to make it about himself instead of being, as Penguins GM Jim Rutherford described him, “the best teammate in professional sports.” In reality, Fleury knew his days were over in Pittsburgh after they won the Stanley Cup in 2016. So did most other people in hockey. After losing the net to Matt Murray, Fleury could have made an issue of his status and pushed for a trade, but Rutherford wisely waited right until the deadline, then made a deal to have the Golden Knights take Fleury in the expansion draft in return for a second-round pick. It was a move that turned out to be a stroke of genius when Murray went down with a torn hamstring in the warm-up before Game 1 of Pittsburgh's first-round playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In came Fleury, who backstopped the Penguins to a surprisingly easy five-game triumph over the Blue Jackets before helping them through the second round in seven games in their annual playoff victory over the Washington Capitals, delivering a 29-save shutout in Game 7. Even though he was pulled in the middle of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final and never got the net back, Fleury left Pittsburgh knowing they could not have possibly won the Cup without him. Fleury would still be universally loved in Pittsburgh had he not saved the Penguins in the playoffs, but what he did and how he handled sitting in the conference final and Stanley Cup final cemented his legacy as one of the sport’s all-time good people. He was drafted first overall by the Penguins in Nashville in 2003 and finished his career as a Penguin in the same place 14 years later with the Stanley Cup over his head.
“That’s probably the most fun I had playing hockey,” Fleury says. “You just feel a little more useful, right? When can you can contribute to the success, it’s a good time.”
Then it was off to Vegas, where he instantly became the face of the NHL’s newest franchise. But who could have imagined what would happen after that? The Knights are not only one of the NHL’s best teams, they’ve created a dynamic with their fan base that has been absolutely remarkable to see. Most of that has been created by their success on the ice, but it’s almost impossible to discount the notion that some of that relationship was rooted in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. On Oct. 1, just hours after the Golden Knights closed out their pre-season with a 5-3 loss to the San Jose Sharks on home ice, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on the strip, killing 58 people and injuring 546. Fleury learned of the tragedy shortly after he arrived home after the game when he received a call from former teammate Brent Johnson, who was checking to see if he and his family were safe.
Nine days later, the Golden Knights held their first-ever home opener in a ceremony that was understated and respectful, while still celebrating their entrance into the best hockey league in the world. And like the Boston Bruins did in 2013 when they made a run to the Stanley Cup final after the Boston Marathon bombing, the Golden Knights know nothing they do will ever take away the pain or loss, or even change anything, but they knew they could do their part to help a city move on. “You’re not going to heal anybody or fix anybody or bring anybody back,” Fleury says. "I think the team did a great job. If we could just change their mind and get busy watching hockey and having fun I think we can help a little bit.”
Then in their next home game, Fleury took an Anthony Mantha knee to the head in a 6-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings and left the lineup with a serious concussion. As a player who has dealt with concussions several times during his career, Fleury was concerned that he wasn’t responding quickly enough and that the healing was taking longer than he expected. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, were watching their goaltenders drop one by one until they were down to the fourth and fifth goalies on their depth chart. But something strange was happening. The Golden Knights continued to pile up wins and something that could have been their undoing was actually an exercise in team-building the Golden Knights never anticipated.
Fleury, meanwhile, was able to sit out without the pressure of having to return to the lineup and is now back in the crease where he belongs. Which brings us to looking ahead to 2018. Everything has changed for the Golden Knights now, nothing more than the expectations surrounding this team. Most people would have looked at this roster and figured at best it would be in the thick of the playoff race, chasing one of the wild card spots in the Western Conference. Fleury is quick to point out that there is still a lot of hockey to be played, but if the Golden Knights are as good in the first half of 2018 as they were in the second half of 2017, the possibilities are intriguing. Can the Golden Knights emerge as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup this season? Well, they’ve done nothing to this point to suggest that they won’t.
“I think that’s a conversation I’ll leave to the media,” Fleury says when asked about the Golden Knights’ playoff chances. "For us it’s about the next game and playing that game as best we can and trying to get a win and not look too far ahead. We’ll just play the games and see what happens.”