Updated February 27, 2021 - 12:56 pm
Marc-Andre Fleury can’t explain the fire. Only that it has always raged inside him. There isn’t a specific moment or game or message imparted by another that accounts for it. Not even from his late father.
“He always told me to work hard and have fun,” Fleury said. “He was like, ‘Don’t waste my time and don’t waste yours. Just try your best.’ He wasn’t a hard-ass about it or forced me to ever like hockey.
“I just remember always wanting to win more than anything. I don’t play to prove myself to anybody. I play because I love the game and everything about it. The battle. The intensity of the NHL. The feeling you get after winning a game. That’s all I care about — winning with those guys in the locker room.”
Greatness is created from a competitive spirit, the sort few athletes have more than Fleury. His play in goal for the Golden Knights this season is one of the NHL’s best stories, made even more improbable by his journey over the past year.
Tried moving him
The Knights moved on from Fleury as their No. 1 goalie in the return-to-play bubble last summer, coach Pete DeBoer mostly opting for trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner during the playoffs. The team, which would then sign Lehner to a five-year contract worth $25 million, explored moving Fleury in the offseason.
But two years and $14 million remained on his deal, and teams reportedly balked at paying such a price for a 36-year-old goalie coming off two consecutive years of declining play.
His numbers last season were among the worst of his career. And who could forget the tweet during the playoffs from Fleury’s agent, Allan Walsh, depicting an edited photo of Fleury in goal being impaled from behind by a sword with “DeBoer” inscribed on the blade.
“I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason,” DeBoer said. “Some of the best moves are the ones you don’t make. In the offseason, when you don’t win, you have to look at everything. That’s all the process was.
“Depth at the most important position was always something that was discussed. We never minimized the importance of that.”
It makes all this even more amazing: Fleury entered Saturday’s game at Anaheim with an 8-3 record, 1.55 goals against average and .942 save percentage, all numbers at or among league leaders. Three of the wins are shutouts, including two against high-powered Colorado.
Fleury has regained control of the net, Lehner having last played Feb. 7 and out with what the Knights have termed an upper-body injury.
Was it enough motivation that the team selecting Fleury in the 2017 expansion draft, one he led to the Stanley Cup Final in its first season, explored trading him? Was the idea of not being wanted the incentive to inspire a goalie who is fifth on the all-time wins list and has three Stanley Cup titles from his time in Pittsburgh?
Or, did the fire need rekindling at all?
“I’ve seen it a bunch in my career — it doesn’t matter who you are — you can get moved,” Fleury said. “As a player, you just have to be able to roll with it and not worry too much about it. Move forward, play as well as you can, enjoy things with the boys in the locker room.
“I know I don’t have that many years left in front of me, so I want to make them count and have as much fun as I can and enjoy it as much as I can.”
Hockey insiders are often baffled that Fleury never has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the goaltender who had the best season. But seven years have passed since LeBron James won an MVP Award in the NBA, so everything is relative.
Now, a third of the way through the season, Fleury is a favorite to win the Vezina.
Perhaps the most ironic — impressive? — part to his resurgence has been a willingness to change. Even now. Even at this stage of his career and with all his accomplishments.
It might seem subtle, but Fleury is playing deeper in the crease compared to previous years. In that run to the Stanley Cup Final with the Knights, he was encouraged by then-goalie coach Dave Prior to be far more aggressive.
It worked then.
It didn’t much the following two seasons.
“We spent a lot of time analyzing last year and how he got scored on and where and why,” DeBoer said. “There was definitely a plan in place from our goaltending department — some ideas we thought he could incorporate to fix things. To his credit, he was all ears.
“The pleasant surprise was his openness to coaching. He acknowledged that last year wasn’t his best. He took some adversity that was thrown at him and responded in the way great players respond. He doesn’t have his numbers and the Stanley Cups and a Hall of Fame resume by accident.”
Masks competitive drive
It goes back to the enigma that is Fleury, of which there isn’t a more liked face among teammates and media and fans. But when the puck drops, congeniality becomes an insatiable desire to win.
Those in the locker room know both sides, to the point forward Reilly Smith said Fleury is a master at masking that internal spark while not in net. That while it’s difficult for 99 percent of professional athletes to hide their displeasure when things aren’t going well, Fleury is an exception.
“After he has played who knows how many games in his career, no matter if he’s tired or not, he always has a good time, which is a rarity when it comes to goalies later in their career,” Smith said. “But he is ultracompetitive and yet doesn’t really show it. Every day he comes to the rink, he has a big smile on his face. That never changes.”
Fleury hopes his three children also come to develop a competitive drive, that while he understands a day will come when they will be able to defeat him at most tasks, he will hold out as long as possible from the passage of time and one of life’s long-established truths.
It’s the same should he find himself playing cards or a board game with his wife, Veronique.
“I would cheat to win,” Fleury said. “But she knows me too well, so maybe not cheat. But I would get mad if I lose, for sure.”
Seventeen seasons later, the fire rages.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.