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Fleury leaves mark on Pittsburgh with playground

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Marc-Andre Fleury isn't sure what his future holds. But no matter where he ends up, Fleury made sure to leave his mark on Pittsburgh - the city he and his family love so much and have called home for so many years - before he goes in a way that is so true to his personality.

On Tuesday, Fleury, his wife Veronique and their two daughters Estelle and Scarlett celebrated the grand opening of a state-of-the-art children's playground at the Sto-Ken-Rox Boys & Girls Club in the McKees Rocks area of Pittsburgh.

"It feels good," Fleury said. "It's been something we've been thinking about for a little while and we were just thinking about something to give back. The people of Pittsburgh have been so good to me, so to build something fun, something for the kids, I'm glad it all came out and the kids seem to like it."

When people think of Fleury, they think of his signature smile and how he's always laughing and joking around. Always playing pranks, being mischievous and goofing around. He's such a big kid at heart, so this is the perfect legacy for him to leave in Pittsburgh.

"When you look at Marc-Andre, it's his smile," said Penguins Foundation President Dave Soltesz. "We're all captivated with Marc-Andre's signature smile, so how appropriate that he picked a project that will bring smiles to so many kids."

Fleury financed construction of the new playground, which features a huge outdoor structure - done, fittingly enough, in black and Pittsburgh gold - over rubberized flooring for year-round activities and a water feature for the neighborhood's children to enjoy during the heat of the summer months.

In addition to the outdoor structures, Fleury purchased a multitude of supplies for the Boys & Girls Club, including sports equipment, games, educational materials and electronics. He also donated hockey nets, a score clock and equipment for the Club's indoor dek hockey rink, now named Rink 29.

For the grand opening, all of those supplies were lined up on the bleachers surrounding Rink 29, where Fleury and his daughters took to the dek and played some ball hockey when they needed a break from outside (well, Marc-Andre and Estelle played while Scarlett roamed the court).

This is something that had been in the works for a while now, and to see it come together like it did was heartwarming for the Fleury family.

"We're just so grateful, you know?" Veronique said. "We just wanted to make sure we could leave something behind. And we're excited. We're just very proud and happy today."

The Fleury girls absolutely loved it, and Estelle couldn't get enough of the slides. She was constantly going down all three of them and running back up for more turns, telling us that was her favorite part of the playground.

"They've been playing in it for a few hours now, so that's a good sign," Veronique laughed. "That should mean the kids are going to be having a lot of fun in this for a while, so it's great."

The process began several years ago, when Marc-Andre and Veronique approached the Penguins about doing a legacy project. They settled on building a neighborhood playground, and planning got serious about 3-4 months ago.

"We've been in Pittsburgh for about 14 years, and now having kids, we just know kids are our future," Veronique explained. "So we wanted to give something back to the community and we thought (giving back to the) kids would be a great idea. And a playground, all the kids love it. Then we've heard of this Boys and Girls Club and thought it would be a perfect fit for us, which I think it is."

Mike Hepler, who is the President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, is somebody that the Fleurys know and trust. They felt comfortable leaving this legacy project in his capable hands.

"I just think the owner of this place, Mike, does such a good job and sees so many kids every day in the summer and the school year also," Marc-Andre said. "I just thought that this could reach a lot of kids and I'll always love sports, I still do. Games too, so I thought that was fitting.

"Mike said he would take good care of it. Obviously, that's nice. He's the one doing all the hard work for the kids. He's given so much back to the community. To be able to help and see all the smiles out there, it's fun."

When we spoke to Hepler, he still couldn't believe that the Fleury family had done this for his community, calling it a 'blessing' and 'divine intervention.'

"It just kind of fell from the sky," Hepler said. "This is amazing. We had the opportunity to sit down with Marc, they liked the site and the timing could not have been any better."

That's because at this particular Club location, they partnered with a local school district, which brought their attendance up from 75-80 local youth to over 190 children every day. It's been what Hepler called 'controlled chaos' at the Club in terms of trying to find more and more activities for the kids to do.

"Whenever this project came to pass, we put it on the fast track to get it done to accommodate these children," Hepler said. "And I think what you're seeing here is that this has nothing to do with egos or anything. Marc wanted to do something wonderful for the children, him and his wife. So they took the time to plan the project and did all the heavy lifting."

It wasn't something that Marc-Andre put his name on and then walked away from. It was incredibly important to him and Veronique that they be involved in every aspect of the planning and make sure it turned out exactly right.

"Marc is doing this for all the right reasons," Hepler said. "Even today, he just wanted to focus on the kids. Not really him. And that's what he did. He's doing it for all the right reasons, right here. And that's important to all of us, especially in the Boys & Girls Club."

It worked out perfectly because Hepler said they had an issue with their swimming pool recently and ended up converting it into the indoor dek hockey rink, which is now named after Marc-Andre. They were then able to use the existing setup to make the water feature, which was important to the Fleurys. They wanted to make sure the kids could get a break from the heat during the dog days of summer.

"At the onset of the project, Marc and his wife asked for a wishlist from us," Hepler said. "We provided them with the wishlist, but we did not expect to get everything that was on that wishlist, plus some. The kids have an early Christmas, for sure, thanks to Marc. We are honored to name that rink after Marc, something that's going to be here for a long, long time."

Fleury has spent a long, long time in this city, and it's hard for him to put into words what this community means to him. He tends to choke up thinking about the support, gratitude and love he's gotten from the people of Pittsburgh during his 12-plus seasons with the franchise. This is his way of trying to reciprocate that as much as he can.

"It's bittersweet a bit, because this feels like home for me and my family," he said. "It'll be tough to leave this place and start somewhere else. But we've got great memories, lots of great times. I think I just wanted to give a little something to thank the people of Pittsburgh for what they've done for us."

And in return, they couldn't be more grateful.

When the kids came streaming out to start playing, a group of them held a colorful banner with "MERCI FLEURY!" written across it in huge letters. They giddily presented it to Fleury before the ribbon-cutting and jersey presentation, and he stopped to high-five them all and pose for a photo. Afterward, they couldn't believe they had actually gotten a chance to meet him, and couldn't believe he had left them this amazing gift.

"I feel so happy about this because it represents the goalie of the Penguins," said 11-year-old Amanee.

"I'm really excited about this park and I want to thank him for making all of this happen," said 9-year-old Ella.

When I asked how much they liked the new playground, they had the best responses.

"It's 100 percent cool!" said 9-year-old Maribella.

"Actually, it's 101 percent cool," interjected Amanee.

"It's more than cool, it's extraordinary!" exclaimed 12-year-old Najee.

Just like Marc-Andre himself.

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