LAS VEGAS – It was the largest ovation of the night at T-Mobile Arena, an explosion of appreciation near the end of the NHL Expansion Draft. Marc-Andre Fleury had stepped onto the stage, wearing a Vegas Golden Knights jersey and that smile that never seems to fall from his face, no matter the circumstances.
Like the jersey of his former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, there was black and there was gold. Except this gold sparkled in the light.
“It’s nice. A little flashy. Like Vegas,” said defenseman Brayden McNabb, who was also drafted by the Golden Knights.
A few rows from the stage sat Sidney Crosby, Fleury’s close friend and teammate with the Penguins. He listened to the crowd cheer, listened to Fleury address his new fans.
“I didn’t expect that. It was so crazy. We’re really excited to get this started,” said Fleury.
Crosby was not smiling.
“It’s a weird feeling,” said Crosby after the NHL Awards and Expansion Draft, where he lost both the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award to Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers. “I’ll let him know how weird it was to see him in a jersey like that.”
For Fleury, it was weird wearing a sweater that didn’t have a Penguin on it, too.
“Yeah, for sure. I never did it before, so it’s a little different,” said Fleury, who played all of his 14 seasons with the Penguins. “But I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’ll wear it with pride.”
Fleury was one of three goalies taken by the Knights in the expansion draft, and figures to be their primary starter. He has two years left on his contract at $5.75 million against the cap annually.
Ten days ago, Fleury was celebrating on the ice in Nashville, having won a third Stanley Cup with the Penguins. Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final was his last game with Pittsburgh – he had waived his no-movement clause around the trade deadline, allowing the team to protect goalie Matt Murray in the expansion draft. The agreement was that the Penguins wouldn’t deal him at the trade deadline to one of the teams that wasn’t listed on his limited no-trade list, but that Fleury would be exposed in the expansion draft.
“The team came forward to me and asked … it gave them more [flexibility] for the future, for the summer, so they weren’t scrambling to trade me,” Fleury told the Post Gazette. “I thought it was the right thing to help the team, to stay with the team and finish the season here and have a chance to play for the Cup again.”
Without Fleury, the Penguins probably don’t play for that Cup. Murray was injured before the first game of the playoffs. Fleury back-stopped the Penguins to wins over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals, but saw his postseason end after giving up four goals on nine shots in Game 3 against the Ottawa Senators. Murray replaced him, and led the Penguins to their second straight Stanley Cup.
Fleury skated the Cup in Nashville, which closed a surreal career loop for him. “It’s crazy how this whole thing works. How life works. I got drafted in Nashville, played my last game in Nashville. Weird circumstances,” said Fleury.
It gets weirder: Fleury was drafted first overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft on June 21.
Exactly 14 years later, to the day, he was drafted by the Golden Knights in an entirely different kind of draft.
Vegas agreed to select him in exchange for a second round draft pick in 2020 from the Penguins.
“I’m sure it hasn’t been an easy couple of years being in that situation,” said Crosby. “You sometimes forget how difficult it is because he handled it so well.”
Indeed, it’s hard to gauge how Fleury felt during those days of frustration, because Fleury isn’t one to project it.
“He’s top notch in every aspect,” said defenseman Deryk Engelland, a former Penguins teammate who was signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Golden Knights. “Great teammate, fun to be around, never too high and never too low. Great around the rink, everything. There’s nothing bad I could ever say about that guy.”
For Fleury, it’s a fresh start and an opportunity few players have in their careers: To be the face of the franchise, for a franchise that didn’t exist last season.
“I don’t know … I’m not looking to be the face of much. I come and play hockey,” he said, modestly.
But here, in Vegas, Fleury is a rock star. They chanted his name in a post-draft fan forum. One fan screamed “I LOVE YOU,” and Fleury responded “I LOVE YOU TOO.”
And they gave him that ovation at the expansion draft.
“I didn’t know that was coming. I got surprised by that. I was going out there to give a quick wave,” he said. “That was a warm welcome. Really excited about it.”
Crosby’s excited to see what his old friend can accomplish in Las Vegas.
“I know he’s going to do great things here,” he said. “They really couldn’t have found a better guy to do it.”
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