Marc-Andre Fleury is nice.
He was a nice goalie for the Penguins to have for 13 seasons. While never considered among the top handful of netminders in the NHL — in fact, Fleury’s best finish in Vezina Trophy voting was seventh in 2012 when he got a single third place vote — he was a huge part of three Stanley Cup championship teams.
On the 2009 champions he was the unquestioned No. 1 and made a last-second save in Game 7 that will be remembered as long as hockey is played in Pittsburgh.
The 2016 Cup-winning team wouldn’t even have made the playoffs if not for Fleury’s play at the start of the season when they struggled to score goals, and he all but single-handedly beat the Blue Jackets and Capitals to open this year’s Cup run. That’s a legendary career.
Whether he is a Hall of Fame goalie is better left for other people to debate at another time. He’ll at least get some consideration thanks to the three rings and 375 wins — the most in franchise history by almost 150. His career goals against average and save percentage will hurt his chances, especially since they’ll now take an ugly turn thanks to facing an onslaught of shots behind an expansion team in Las Vegas. But he was a nice goalie to have on the Penguins roster for 13 years and one that most other NHL teams would have liked to have had at their disposal.
But the best part about Marc-Andre Fleury was that he was nice. Truly nice.
The psychology of why sports fans root for the teams and athletes in their hometown is a complicated one. Yes, the Penguins, Steelers and Pirates represent the city, but it’s rare for any of the players on the team to actually be “from here.” The Pirates had Neil Walker not too long ago. The Steelers now have James Conner, who is from Pitt by way of Erie. The Penguins had Ryan Malone a decade ago. The rest are hired guns. Players who just as easily could be gone tomorrow via trade, free agency or release; athletes we often then turn on immediately when they have to pledge allegiance to their new city. (Boo, James Neal! Boo!)
And then there are the athletes in every city, Pittsburgh included, who are known to be bad citizens. It’s hard to muster up applause for them regardless of what colors they wear on gameday.
Fleury was different. It was impossible to not root for a guy who was genuinely, legitimately … nice. There is not a person who will, or can, say a bad word about the man. After having his team’s heart ripped out by the Penguins again this postseason, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik made a point to say he was happy for Fleury:
Fleury was the first pro athlete I ever interviewed, he not too far into his professional hockey career and me not too far into … whatever it is that I do. He is still the nicest athlete I’ve ever talked to. At one point I remember him saying: “That’s a really good question, DJ.” It was decidedly not a good question, but Fleury was simply being … nice.
He was like that to everyone, everywhere.
Over his years with the Penguins, never once did any of his comments or actions or charity work seem anything but sincere, all the way through to the end with the playground he and his wife, Veronique, donated to McKees Rocks and opened earlier this week.
We can all think of athletes who seem to engage in do-goodery as much to build their #brand as to actually help anyone. But that was never Fleury.
It was no surprise then that his unexpected return to the net this postseason, and his subsequent outstanding play, made the city fall in love with him all over again. There were no signs of the Fleury from past playoff disappointments, the guy some thought was maybe too nice to win when things got tough.
When he lost that job after one bad period against Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Finals, not everyone was a fan of the move (myself included, admittedly) for reasons that had absolutely zero to do with hockey. It was nothing against Matt Murray, who is an outstanding goalie (and seems to be a pretty good guy himself). But there has never been an athlete who is easier to root for than Marc-Andre Fleury and Penguins fans didn’t want it to end before it really had to. They wanted to see the ultimate good guy go out on top and in net. In a broader world where it increasingly seems like only the absolute worst people do most of the winning, Marc-Andre Fleury unexpectedly backstopping the Penguins from off the bench to win another Stanley Cup at age 32 would have been a welcome change of pace. One small victory for the nice people.
But the end is now here. Fleury is gone to Vegas. He is a Golden Knight, and they have themselves a good goalie. And he is a good goalie. No matter how nice Fleury was, he wouldn’t have stuck in the NHL on big smiles if he was giving up four goals every game.
The dates aren’t set yet for when Fleury and the Golden Knights visit PPG Paints Arena this winter. But if you happen to be in the building on one of those nights, do your part to make sure Fleury gets the longest standing ovation the arena has ever seen. That would be nice.