Marc-Andre Fleury: '(Penguins fans) have been great to me'
Whenever Tom Kuhnhackl ventured out in public with Marc-Andre Fleury over the past couple of seasons, mob scenes were the norm.
"Every time I was with him and somebody saw him, he was stuck there for a half-hour, 45 minutes, taking pictures, signing stuff, chatting with the fans," Kuhnhackl said. "He was obviously well loved."
Whenever Ian Cole run into fans this season, even though Fleury is eight months into his tenure with the Vegas Golden Knights, he knows the questions are going to come.
"How many people this year have said, 'Aw, man, how much do you guys miss Marc?' " Cole said. "He's not here and people are still talking about him with glowing admiration. I think that's a great measure of the kind of energy and the character that he brought not only to this team but this city."
That, in a nutshell, is why Tuesday night's game between Fleury's Golden Knights and the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena might be the most eagerly anticipated regular-season matchup in the building's history.
It's not because Fleury is facing his old team for the first time. That happened in December in Las Vegas. Fleury made 24 saves to lead his Golden Knights to a 2-1 win. Been there, done that.
It's because of the special connection Fleury made with fans during his 14 years in the Penguins organization. He might not have been the team's most popular playing during that span — it's awfully hard to top Sidney Crosby for those honors — but he was the most beloved.
And the feeling was mutual.
"It was my home for so long," Fleury said after the Golden Knights practiced at the arena Monday afternoon. "From the neighbors to the restaurants to the seasons, things like this. I've met a lot of people over the years. People have been great to me. It's been fun, fun times."
Part of Fleury's connection to the fans arose because of longevity.
When the Penguins picked him first overall in the 2003 draft, they were in the middle of a stretch of four brutal, non-playoff seasons. His arrival was the first sign things might turn around, and for the bulk of the next 14 years, he was the team's No. 1 goaltender.
"What everybody strives for is a long Hall of Fame career like Flower," goalie Matt Murray said. "That's something you can aspire to, for sure."
The bigger reason for the connection, though, is probably Fleury's personality. The joy he brought to the game was evident.
Ask any teammate for a funny Fleury story, and they won't need long to recall one.
Cole remembered the tale of a group of six Penguins players walking back to the hotel after dinner last season in Los Angeles. They passed a small ice rink.
"He went and rented some skates and kind of stiff-legged it around the ice and went really fast," Cole said. "Full speed into the wall, tumbled into the wall and dropped 3 feet to the ground just to see what the security guards would do. They all come flying over, diving over the boards to see if he's OK, and the other five guys are standing there just cracking up.
"Got a video of it. Showed the boys. It was one of the funnier things I've ever seen, just the security guards' reactions, these high school kids freaking out, thinking somebody killed themselves on their outdoor rink in Santa Monica."
Fleury said he doesn't know what kind of reaction to expect when his name is announced to the arena crowd as a member of the visiting team Tuesday night.
He doesn't need to wonder. After the connection he has forged with fans over the past decade and a half, he's sure to get a rousing ovation, just like he did from his teammates that night in Santa Monica.
"I've had such great support over the years, through the good, through the bad," Fleury said. "People have always been very supportive of me, always cheer me on and stuff. It will be fun."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.