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Stanley Cup Final

Fleury, pursuing Cup with Golden Knights, impressed as teenager

Junior coach not surprised 'aggressive goalie' going for fourth title

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

It's a story that Pascal Vincent says tells a great deal about Marc-Andre Fleury, from the 2000-01 season when Vincent was coaching Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Fleury, now the starting goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights, was his 16-year-old rookie.

 

[RELATED: Fleury facing familiar foe in Stanley Cup Final | Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

"We didn't have a statistician, so we had our backup goalie keeping stats on the bench, where shots and goals were coming from," said Vincent, who coaches Manitoba, the Winnipeg Jets' American Hockey League affiliate.

"One game, things didn't go well for Marc-Andre so I pulled him. He comes to the bench and after the second period I'm looking at the stats sheet and there's nothing on it. I know he's not happy that I pulled him, but he's supposed to be keeping the stats. I turn the page and on the back it says something like, 'I'm a goalie, not a statistician.' "

Vincent laughed as he related the conflicting emotions he had that night.

"I was really angry with Marc-Andre because he wasn't doing what was requested of him," he said. "But at the same time, that day I realized that this kid would go a long way because he had serious character and he wanted to compete."

Now Fleury has helped the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season after winning three championships with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Golden Knights host the Washington Capitals in Game 1 on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"I'm not surprised at all," Vincent said of Fleury, 33, who came under his wing as a 15-year-old who was too good to be returned to his Montreal-area AAA midget team. "Marc-Andre has invested so much in himself and his skills. He's won three Stanley Cups and is still performing like he is now because of all the work he has put in over many years, starting when he was 14, 15."

As coach and general manager of Cape Breton, a franchise that had relocated to Sydney, Nova Scotia, from Granby, Quebec, in 1997, Vincent selected the 15-year-old Fleury at No. 16 in the 2000 QMJHL draft, fully intending to return the gangly goalie to his College Charles-Lemoyne midget team.

"We didn't feel that Marc-Andre was ready for major junior back then," said Vincent, 46, the AHL coach of the year this season. "But he showed up at training camp that fall with blue pads that were a little too short for him and he was just the best goalie on the ice."

Fleury remembers his English not being very good. "It helped me that [Vincent] was French," he said. "So he helped me with some of that."

Vincent said the culture shock was dramatic for an often unilingual francophone arriving in a city that spoke precious little French.

"Back then, a kid going to Cape Breton from Montreal was basically like going to Russia," Vincent said. "It was a new franchise, so far from home (about a 900-mile drive east). There were a lot of things a kid didn't know."

Vincent recalled having several goalies in camp in 2000 but being dazzled by Fleury.

"I remember his first exhibition game as if it were yesterday," Vincent said. "He was extremely quick already, but it was his work ethic and attitude that impressed me the most. The humble, down-to-earth person you see off the ice today is who he was back then. But as soon as he put his equipment on, he changed into an aggressive goalie. Aggressive in a good way. He was a really solid competitor who believed he could stop every single puck. It was impressive to see him start to grow into the player he is today."

Idolizing and working to emulate legendary goaltenders and fellow Quebec natives Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, Fleury played 151 games over four seasons for Vincent, going 63-52-17 with a .933 save percentage, the latter a glittering statistic in often freewheeling junior hockey. In 2008, Fleury's No. 29 became the only number in franchise history to be retired.

Fleury was highly touted heading into the 2003 NHL Draft, but few expected him to be chosen No. 1 by Pittsburgh, which he was. He played 13 seasons for the Penguins, his only professional team until he was selected by Vegas in the NHL Expansion Draft in June.

"I remember people saying at the time (in 2003), 'OK, Marc-Andre is good, but [enough] to be No. 1?' Today, he's making Pittsburgh look pretty good because they made the right choice that day," Vincent said. "He's being rewarded and recognized. He's the main guy now. In Pittsburgh, he was [overshadowed by] Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and all those guys. There's an understanding now about what this guy brings to a hockey team. Maybe he was undervalued a little bit in Pittsburgh because of all those big names."

Vincent spoke of the adversity that Fleury has overcome in his NHL career: being returned to Cape Breton during his first season with the Penguins in 2003-04; being replaced by Matt Murray in the Eastern Conference Final last season after filling in for the injured Murray to help the Penguins defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets and Capitals in the first two rounds; and, of course, being unprotected in the expansion draft.

The coach said he believes what Fleury is experiencing with Vegas is a repayment of sorts by the hockey gods.

"I truly believe that good things happen to good people," Vincent said. "When you spend your energy on being positive and helping your teammates, at some point it comes back to you. Marc-Andre has been a great teammate his whole life. He was in major junior and he still is. Listen to his teammates now and his former teammates in Pittsburgh. This kind of attitude will pay off at some point. He's invested in being a positive person and he does it naturally.

"The energy that Marc-Andre brings to the rink is contagious. He loves being at the rink, he loves having fun. He understands the pressure, no doubt, as he did back in junior. He welcomes it but at the same time he finds a way to have fun with it because he loves the game so much."

The two men have stayed in touch. On Sunday, after Fleury helped the Golden Knights to a series-clinching victory against the Jets in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final, Vincent texted him to say congratulations.

Fleury replied quickly with a message of thanks.

"[Vincent] is one of the best coaches I've had, definitely," Fleury said. "I was 15 when I left home to go [to Cape Breton]. It was a big step for me. Pascal told me right away that I could stay or go back, or maybe come back next year. Then he was like, 'You can make the team, you can help us.'

"And since that first day, he's always helped me through his discipline, through his work ethic, through his professionalism. He made me care about my homework, my studies."

Vincent, who spent five years as an assistant with the Jets before coaching Manitoba for the past two seasons, considers the bond he has with Fleury, and the friendships he's made through the years with Vegas coach Gerard Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly, when he casts an eye toward the Cup Final.

"I wish we (the Jets) were still playing," Vincent said, "but Marc-Andre will always have a special place in my heart.

"Losing to Vegas is still fresh in my mind, and I'm Winnipeg Jets all the way. I'm not necessarily hoping that Vegas wins, but I'm wishing the best to those people. They're good people. Does that make me a fan of Vegas?"

And then he laughed.

"Let's just say that my human connection to Marc-Andre, Gerard and Mike makes me think, if we're not going to win, it might as well be those guys."

NHL.com staff writer Lisa Dillman contributed to this report.

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