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Graney: Marc-Andre Fleury visits Knights for maybe final time

Jon Merrill saw it firsthand. The adoration. The commitment. The craziness. The flowers.

The Minnesota Wild defenseman witnessed the rabid response by Golden Knights fans towards goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Witnessed for some time how a city fell in love with an athlete unlike any in its history.

“Nothing comes to mind as far as anyone I’ve played with in terms of the fan frenzy he had here,” said Merrill, who played for the Knights for three seasons before reuniting with Fleury on the Wild. “I think he has been that way anywhere he goes. Fans love him. He just has that type of personality. He’s really easy to like.”

A final decision hasn’t been made by Fleury regarding his next move. Whether the 39-year-old will return to the National Hockey League for his 21st season. He already ranks second all-time in wins with 561.

Fleury’s feeling good right now, much better than he was at the season’s outset. But should he decide to hang up those skates and glide into a Hall of Fame retirement, know that Fleury’s final trip to T-Mobile Arena as a player will be against the Knights on Friday night. He’s expected to start.

Such a commitment

A fan base who enjoyed the Knights’ magical expansion season of 2017 became wholly invested in Fleury. They followed and cheered him to what some might believe a bizarre level.

Hey. Caring isn’t a bad thing.

You don’t often see such a commitment from fans to an athlete so quickly. But the Knights were a new team back then and Fleury was a star with three Stanley Cups who embraced the idea of playing here. It all morphed into an inseparable bond.

“It’s always special when you go back to places you’ve played and special for me being part of the first (four) seasons here,” Fleury said Thursday following Minnesota’s practice at T-Mobile Arena. “The fans were always so good to me. The years go by quick. It’s always cool to come back.”

If you want to know who the most popular Knight is now among fans, look first to Jonathan Marchessault. An Original Misfit, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy during last season’s Stanley Cup Final and has scored 41 goals this year. He’s beloved by many.

William Karlsson is also an original and incredibly popular, both for his play and his epic speech at the team’s championship parade last summer.

But neither player has reached the level of admiration Fleury did when in goal for the Knights. It was something, the intensity of it all before he was traded to Chicago in July 2021.

“Marc-Andre was the most popular player I’ve ever seen in sports,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said on the day of the trade. “When you think back to how it all began, the storybook (2017) season, the passion he has for the game both as a teammate and a player connected for the fan base — he’s had a tremendous impact on our organization, on our city.”

Looking around

Fleury will miss the playoffs this year for just the third time in his career. Whether that has anything to do with his final decision — return or retire — isn’t known.

He still realizes, however, that each time he steps onto the ice in a visiting rink could be his last game there.

Which could mean Friday night at T-Mobile Arena.

“I’ve been lucky to play for a little bit,” Fleury said. “I have felt like this all season. I have good memories (of Las Vegas). I’m sure I’ll take it in a little. I’ll take a minute and look around.”

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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