Marc-Andre Fleury has a wonderful tendency to end an occasional sentence with the question “right?,” thus turning an otherwise declarative statement into something uniquely Flower.
With cameras and recorders surrounding the Golden Knights goaltender at his locker Saturday at City National Arena, that little idiosyncrasy turned into a power moment for Fleury.
“My dad loved hockey, right?” he said at one point, before quickly answering his own query. “Yeah.”
Fleury then bit his upper lip for a full second, made that disappointed ”tsk” sound out of the corner of his mouth that roughly translates as “damn, I miss him” and let out a brief sigh before the next question came his way.
Fleury spoke to the media for the first time since he rejoined the team from his personal leave to be with his father, Andre, who died Nov. 27 at age 63.
He said being back with teammates at practice has provided a helpful diversion during the difficult time and also indicated the best way to honor his late father is through his play.
Fleury said he’s skated the past three days and feels “pretty good,” but did not indicate whether he’s prepared to play Sunday when the Knights host the New York Rangers at T-Mobile Arena.
“It was a hard week, and I feel when you go back on the ice, it changes your mind,” Fleury said. “You’re trying to enjoy the game and be in the moment a bit. My teammates have been very supportive, too. And the fans. I’ve got so many nice notes. My friends and family. I feel very fortunate for that.”
Fleury left the team Nov. 26 to return to his native Sorel, Quebec. He said his father had been ill for the past several months.
“It’s terrible. I got to know his father, and he seemed like a great man,” said left wing Jonathan Marchessault, one of Fleury’s closest friends on the team. “It shows a lot where he comes from and the kind of person he is. It’s very unfortunate.”
Fleury returned to the team at Thursday’s morning skate on Long Island, and he served as the backup to Malcolm Subban in the Knights’ 3-2 overtime defeat to the New York Islanders.
When he stepped on the ice for practice Saturday, he was greeted by a loud ovation from the sizable crowd.
“It’s special. You come back home here and obviously our practice was full again,” Fleury said. “Everybody gave a little cheer every time I skated by or went on the ice. That’s always nice.”
Fleury’s teammates are doing their best to keep the goaltender in good spirits, joking with him as much as possible on the ice.
“It’s hard because you want to say, ‘Man, it’s so good to have you back.’ But at the same time, I hope it’s because he’s happy to be back,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “The most we can do is keep his mind on things like hockey as much as we can, and that’s going to be hard. I know, for me, I get in my car and call my dad maybe once a day or every other day just to see what he’s up to.
“That would be really hard to go through. As much as we can, we’ll try to, I don’t want to say distract him, but celebrate a life instead of mourning a death as much as you can.”
While attempting to keep the atmosphere as normal as possible, coach Gerard Gallant also took a lighthearted approach to the timing of Fleury’s return.
“I’m the coach, and he’s the goalie. I’ll tell him when he’s going to play,” Gallant said with a wide smile. “Give him a chance to get in the net and stop some pucks and we’ll decide (Sunday) morning.”
Who: Rangers at Golden Knights
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -220; total 6½ (under -110)