Penguins goalie Fleury keeps 'em smiling
The world as he knew it was changing too fast for a kid who made a habit of being late for everything.
In a few days, a man named Craig Patrick would swing a deal at the NHL Draft for the first-overall slot.
Marc-Andre Fleury, so shy that he needed an assist from his sister to land the girl who lived on the same long country road in Sorel, Quebec, was about to hit it big.
He was 18 and had every reason to smile.
Fleury did smile, as he always does. But during a drive one afternoon in June 2003, he flipped a switch — as some say only he can — and tried to get in front of the blistering shot he spotted through traffic, a shot that took the form of hype and acclaim.
"There were all these rumors where he might get drafted," said Alexandre Gendron, a childhood friend. "We were in the car and a Porsche Cayenne went past us. I said to him, 'Marc, can you imagine that you will be able to buy a car like that with your NHL money?'
"His smile disappeared. That almost never happens. He said to me, and I'll never forget it: 'Alex, I want you to tell me if I ever become someone else — flashy, or showing off, a snob. I want you to just pull me down to earth and say, 'Stay here.'
"I've never had to do that."
Six years later, Fleury, 25, has arrived as an elite goalie — maybe a little late for the tastes of fans and critics who expected instant success from only the second goaltender picked first overall.
However, his name is on the Stanley Cup. He's financially secure, with five-plus years remaining on a $35 million contract. His spot with Team Canada for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, once in doubt, is safe — at least in the opinion of boyhood idol and legendary New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur.
Oh, and that girl from his street has been his for nearly eight years.
"Marc is just really happy how life has turned out for him," Gendron said. "And there is really no other way for him to show it — there is no other way for him to live — than to flash that smile."
Stop breaking down
Two women close to Fleury — sister, Marylene, 22, and girlfriend, Veronique LaRosee, 24 — also know little about how he compartmentalized a quick fall from grace his first winter with the Penguins.
"He has work to do, and he loves that work. But when it's over, there is another part of his life," Marylene Fleury said. "When hockey is done, he doesn't talk about the game, the coach or anything."
Marc-Andre Fleury's first season as a professional was a case of anything goes: 46 saves in his NHL debut; a Rookie of the Month-capping shutout at Chicago to close October; a freaky tying-goal and horrifying winning-tally that allowed the U.S. to win the World Junior Championship final that December; a permanent return by the cash-strapped Penguins to his junior club Cape Breton in Nova Scotia that January, as he approached contract bonuses that would pay him $3 million; and tough-love treatment from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Michel Therrien in the AHL playoffs.
The tough act from Therrien, fired by the Penguins last February, would stick with Fleury almost as long as doubt from the hockey media as to whether he could come up big when his team needed it most.
A trip to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final — where his 55 saves in a triple-overtime win at Detroit in Game 5 was instantly considered a classic performance — couldn't quiet critics, including skeptical Penguins fans.
The lasting image of Fleury was him hanging his head after allowing another weird goal in Game 6, the one that cost the Penguins the Cup on home ice.
"Probably that Team Canada goal was the worst," LaRosee said. "It's kind of hard for me to say because he won't talk about something that bothers him. When we watched TV and that goal came on or when we heard about it ... Marc just wouldn't smile, and that's how you can tell with him that something is wrong."
Shine a light
Around noon last June 10, the day of another win-or-lose-the-Cup Game 6 at home against the Red Wings, Penguins goaltending coach Gilles Meloche paused to observe a scene inside the players' lounge: There was Fleury, resting in a leather loveseat and laughing through the duration of a French-spoken conversation with forwards Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis.
Fleury had been pulled in the lopsided Game 5 loss at Detroit.
On his way back to his office, Meloche paused and offered a prediction: "Marc-Andre will have the best game of his career tonight."
Talbot said last week that Meloche was wrong — even though Fleury stopped 25 shots in the Penguins' 2-1 Game 6 victory, including a late breakaway by Detroit's Daniel Cleary with 99 seconds remaining.
"He was better in Game 7, which was unbelievable because he was awesome in Game 6," Talbot said. "But he was better in Game 7. I never had any doubt. When we took the ice in Detroit for the morning skate, 'Flower' was smiling, and that's when I knew we were going to get his best."
Penguins defenseman Jay McKee once told Talbot he had never seen a goalie behave like Fleury, as cutthroat on the ice as he is fun-loving off it.
"Who has?" center Jordan Staal said. "He's just a fun guy to be around ... but that doesn't mean he's not competitive. Watch him and (Penguins captain Sidney Crosby) go at it in practice. Those are two of the most competitive guys I've ever seen. It's practice, but if you put a puck behind him, he is (furious)."
Bob Hawkins recalled rare off-games for Fleury with Cape Breton and games of street hockey that followed while Fleury attempted to cool down.
"We always had to play, and I always had to be the goalie," said Hawkins, with whose family Fleury stayed during his junior hockey days.
"He'd be shooting and taking it out on me. I'm lucky that after half-an-hour, he had flipped that switch and was over it. He has that switch. He can go from the kid with a great sense of humor to a fiercely competitive goalie, and after a game, he'll be back to fun-loving pretty fast."
Three days after winning the Cup, Fleury showed a side that nearly caused one of his dearest Pittsburgh friends to do a spit-take. Michael Hornick, a Caldwell Banker agent, sold Fleury his Moon Township home and attends to it when Fleury and LaRosee return to Sorel during the offseason.
"I went over to collect the keys; we're talking about a few things as 'Vero' says she is taking their dog, Lilly, out," Hornick said. "Next thing I know, Vero is running back into the house, screaming something in French, and she runs back outside after grabbing something from the kitchen drawer. Fleury and (Penguins defenseman Kris) Letang leap off the couch, and all I see are shorts and flip-flips in front of me. I thought there was an emergency."
Hornick stepped outside to the sight of Fleury and Letang trailing LaRosee — the three of them chasing an ice cream truck.
"I caught up with him and said, 'Marc, you make a lot of money; you can probably buy some ice cream and keep it in the house.' He said, 'Yeah, you're right, but this is more fun.' Then, he smiled, turned around and started buying ice cream for all the neighbors."
Neither of the Penguins superstar centers, Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin, were on the ice when the Cup was won June 12 at Joe Louis Arena. The last Penguin to touch the puck was, fittingly, Fleury — the first player drafted this decade to turnaround a flat-lining franchise.
He shuffled twice to his right as Red Wings future Hall-of-Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom took a shot to tie the score in the final seconds.
The rising shot hit Fleury in the chest, the last of his 23 saves in a 2-1 victory. Staal spied something familiar as he leaped into his masked goaltender.
"That," Staal said, "was really a big smile."
LaRosee is not so sure her boyfriend's smile was simply a reaction to a save for the ages to win a trophy that would forever change how people view Fleury. Perhaps, LaRosee believes, he was thinking of something she said before the series opened.
"The funniest thing to me, now at least, is at the beginning I told Marc, 'I wouldn't want to be you for Game 7 if it goes there.' Then, it goes there! Oh, I hope he doesn't remember?"
Fleury wouldn't say if he does remember, but his response to the retelling of his girlfriend's words said it all.
"She always told me she didn't want to date a hockey player," he said. "I always told her, 'I'm not a hockey player; I'm a goalie.' That was a while ago. I had to ask my sister to hook me up a little bit."
Marylene Fleury wasn't faced with a tough sell.
"No, because I liked that smile right away," LaRosee said. "The great thing about Marc is it never really goes away."
Neither failure nor success has stopped Marc-Andre Fleury from blossoming into a prankster. A rundown from friends and family of his greatest hits:
» "At dinner one summer, there was, like, 12 of us, and he started singing Christmas carols," friend Alexandre Gendron said. "Not the entire song; bits and pieces. First the other people in the restaurant were very quiet. By the end, they all laughed, and the more they laughed, the bigger he smiled while singing."
» "He dressed as Catwoman once for Halloween," Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "Catwoman! He was a real beauty in that outfit."
» "Where do I begin?" said Bob Hawkins, whose family housed Fleury during his junior days at Cape Breton. "On this last trip to Pittsburgh in November, he kept getting my wife pretty good with a pen that zapped her. He once put Vaseline on my son's doorknob; when my son went to grab the door, he fell into it and couldn't get it open because the Vaseline was all over his hands. He also used to put shaving cream on my son's toothbrush. Oh, and he always was hiding his father's cigarettes. Marc just tormented his father. He was relentless."
» "That is true about the cigarettes, but he would get me, too," sister Marylene Fleury said. "I was in the wash room one day. He closed the door, locked it, and I realized he had put something in the tub that smelled really bad. I couldn't get out. It was awful. That is fun for him."