"I'll never forget it. Never."
Neither will we, Marc-Andre Fleury. Neither will we.
Those were his final words as I rose up to leave the visitors' locker room at PPG Paints Arena, terribly unfamiliar territory to that particular individual. The place had emptied out by this point. All the cameras and microphones, all the questions about all the emotions about all the people who care so very, very much ... all silent now. James Neal, who'd been across the room, was the last of his Vegas teammates to unlace his skates. And as Neal strolled out, he made momentary eye contact with his goaltender and good friend to offer a friendly, almost knowing nod.
Neal couldn't have known, though. None of us could have. Because none of us in Pittsburgh had ever witnessed, much less experienced anything specifically akin to this extraordinary Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
It wasn't a championship. It wasn't a playoff. It wasn't even a particularly meaningful regular-season game, the Penguins' 5-4 rally past the NHL's Las Vegas expansion entry, impressive as the Golden Knights have been.
It wasn't any of that.
But you'd better believe it was a testament to how special we've become as a sports city.
"It's not just here in the building. It's not just the game," Fleury would tell me after Neal was gone, too. "It was everywhere. Everywhere I went around Pittsburgh these couple of days ... people were wearing my jerseys, they made signs, they told me so many kind things ... I thought I was ready for this. I was thinking about it a lot for a long time. But this was ..."
"This was even more."
There's no precedent for this of which I'm aware, and I'm born and raised and committed over a quarter-century to covering sports here. In olden days, athletes really didn't leave, so they couldn't have had a chance to come back. And even once that began happening, no one was welcomed home like this.
Ralph Kiner was a civic treasure as the Pirates' slugger in the 1950s. Fans wouldn't leave Forbes Field until his final at-bat, as my dad's often shared. The legendary general manager Branch Rickey famously said, "Son, we can finish last without you," and traded him to Chicago while the Cubs were right here for a series. While it was front-page news that Kiner would switch dugouts, the crowd the next afternoon numbered 3,182.
Most other former Pirates who've come back have been booed, many of them curiously so. Like, what did Aramis Ramirez ever do to hear it with every at-bat for years after he was dumped to the Cubs to help the ownership escape financial debt? People at Three Rivers or PNC Park would just hear a name, recognize that he used to play here and jeer away.
As a child who watched friends, even family, abandon Pittsburgh in the mass exodus that followed the closing of steel mills in the 1970s -- seriously, we were like Chernobyl without the radiation -- I used to wonder if we were just conditioned to be angry with anyone who ever left us.
Now, of course, there's a certain someone formerly with the Pirates who'll return May 11, and he'll surely be embraced. But that's still in the future and, thus, no precedent.
That's our oldest franchise. Our second-oldest doesn't have any comparable, partly because the Steelers have traditionally clung to their own, partly because the NFL doesn't partake in much player movement. The most notable comeback in our football lore came in 1984 when Cliff Stoudt, a beloved backup quarterback who became a reviled starter when he was with the Steelers, returned to Three Rivers Stadium to play for the Birmingham Stallions of the briefly extant USFL, and our citizenry packed the place to pelt the man with various projectile missiles.
Wait, you think I'm making that up?
It made Sports Illustrated, for crying out loud. And it's documented therein not only that this would be the only sellout in the history of the Maulers but also that poor Cliff was struck by "iceballs, apples, oranges, full beer cans and frozen Oreos," including three times squarely on the helmet. The only thing that could have made the scene more prototypical Pittsburgh is if we'd shoved some fries in there.
These Penguins didn't have a glowingly positive precedent, either.
Jaromir Jagr, for whom a statue someday will be erected Uptown and without whom they might currently be based in Kansas City or Hamilton or Saskatoon, committed the unpardonable sin of once having signed with the wrong team in this commonwealth. He was tormented for it with each touch of the puck.
Of late, yeah, this team's been blessed to have a tour of sentimental returns, mostly for their many individual champions who went on to wear other sweaters. Matt Cullen. Nick Bonino. The Chris Kunitz one, I thought, was wonderful. They've all gotten the video-tribute treatment early in the first period, and they've all felt the appreciation and adulation from those in attendance.
Nothing like this.
Nothing close to this:
Hope you'll forgive me if my hands shook the camera. But understand that it also might not have been my hands, as the building had a decibel level so deafening, so sustained, that it probably only stopped because the NHL's referees and linesmen, who'd been so respectful of the moment that they stretched the game's break beyond reason, finally had to drop the puck.
Three minutes, 31 seconds, front to finish.
'Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry! Fleu-ry!'
Sidney Crosby called it "an incredible ovation," and he's somewhat of an authority.
This was the reaction of the man himself:
This was his wife Veronique:
And this is Veronique's husband shedding a few of his tears -- flicking them away, actually -- as captured by our photographer Matt Sunday at ice level:
[caption id="attachment_561538" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Marc-Andre Fleury wipes and flicks away tears from inside his mask. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
"A little bit," the monsieur would reply when asked about his emotions. "I can say that. I was happy I had the mask on, you know?"
He almost smiled right then. Almost. Remember, he did give up five goals, and this is someone who counts the goals he concedes in a morning skate.
"They always do a good job with these," he'd continue, referring to the Penguins' video tributes. "Just a lot of good memories over the years, right? Just brought a lot of those back."
I pressed gently for more:
But even then, he'd stray out of his way to cite something beyond the video. He'd mention a child he'd seen sporting a No. 29 and crying. He'd mention a sign he'd spot through the glass. He'd mention arena workers he'd always gone out of his way to know, many of whom have held jobs here for decades. He'd mention his family -- parents Andre and France, sister Marylene and more -- who had to travel to share this in person.
Of course, he'd also mention his hockey family, from having his third ring presented to him in the morning by Mario Lemieux, Jim Rutherford and Mike Sullivan to his early-morning visit to the Penguins' locker room, a place where no opponent would be welcome in an ordinary setting, to the playful shot he took from Kris Letang at the end of warmups.
He'd also mention his chat with Matt Murray at center red during those same warmups ...
[caption id="attachment_560947" align="aligncenter" width="640"] Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury talk during warmups. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]
... with the same measure of respect he showed Murray in handing him the Cup last June 11 in Nashville.
"I'm proud of him," Fleury would say of his successor here.
And naturally, perpetual imp that he is, he'd speak of some of those same individuals devilishly.
Even during the game.
A few minutes after some semblance of calm had been restored to the scene following the tribute video, Ryan Mill, the Penguins' PA announcer, boomed into the microphone that the team welcomed " ... from the Pittsburgh Steelers! No. 50! Ryan Shazier!"
Oh, no way.
And then the big board showed Shazier seated in a suite, smiling as we've blissfully seen him doing a lot in the past month.
And then ...
What was going to come next?
Sid Bream would be called out at the plate?
David Volek's shot would whistle wide?
Neil O'Donnell would realize Larry Brown was playing for Dallas?
Well, as surely as hockey celebrates its threes, the hat trick in this equation is that one heck of a game would follow: The Penguins fell behind by two to the West's best, but Ryan Reaves' icebreaker under Fleury's glove set the stage for a riveting victory, one that would only be enhanced by the stubborn Golden Knights striking twice late to make the final few minutes harrowing. And that's without even referencing Sullivan losing two forwards, Carter Rowney and Tom Kuhnhackl, to injury, plus benching a third, Dominik Simon, to spend half the game a line short.
"It was a terrific effort by our group," Sullivan would say, sounding nothing at all like he did in Newark over the weekend. "That's a very good hockey team over there, and I thought this was a very good hockey game."
It's definitely more than we deserved.
Neither Fleury nor Murray was at his sharpest, but both also faced a 1980s-level barrage of breakaways and other point-blank attempts in an affair that was uncharacteristically loose for either side.
Which was fine, too, because we got to enjoy this again:
That last one's the best. Not because Fleury reaches out with the pokecheck to deny Malkin a backhand try. But because Fleury laughed -- out loud, for real -- in Malkin's direction afterward.
"I wanted him to know I got him," Fleury would recall.
OK, so Malkin retaliated in kind later ...
... but the spirit's what mattered most, at least from this perspective.
In 2003, very soon after Craig Patrick made one of the most vastly under-appreciated moves of his Hall of Fame career in trading up to No. 1 in the NHL Draft for the express purpose of rebuilding his roster through a franchise goaltender, I traveled to Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, Fleury's hometown, to get to know him, his family, his friends. And it was there that I learned, among so much else that was compelling, how Fleury was once so embarrassed at having been relegated to backup duty on a youth team that he hid at the end of the bench so his teammates wouldn't see him vomiting.
The full Post-Gazette piece is still available online.
I also saw Fleury and his sister play soccer in the family's back yard, with the parents advising me to pay close attention if I wanted to learn something about him. They competed like mortal enemies. She was the shooter. He was the goaltender. And as the mom would attest, "She's the better athlete. She'll beat him. And he'll be really mad."
She did. And he was. And then he kept coming back for more.
As Fleury and I talked last night, no matter the subject, somehow, he'd keep swinging back to a regret from this game.
"Cole, he beat me again," he said, referring to Ian Cole, who also scored the Penguins' lone goal in the teams' previous meeting in December out in Vegas. "Did he say anything about it?"
I replied that I thought Cole had maybe boasted a little about it during an intermission with Dan Potash, but I couldn't pick up the audio.
"That's OK. I'm sure I'll hear about it."
"We're great friends," Cole spoke while failing to keep a straight face. "I don't know what you're talking about."
And what about Phil Kessel, I asked, having promised to score on him tonight?
"He got me, but he said he'd go upstairs."
Nope. Down low. Slam dunk, too, off a fine feed from Malkin.
"Yeah. Not the same."
There was the smile, all the way this time.
That's the Fleury I've gotten to know. And I'd love to think that's the Fleury, in so many different walks of life, that we as a city have all gotten to know. And appreciate. And applaud. And accept that it's totally OK that he's now happy somewhere else.
Funny, it's like we've all grown up together.
MATT SUNDAY GALLERY
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