Every player remembers their first NHL game, no matter how long ago it was. And Marc-Andre Fleury is no different.
His debut is one that would be especially hard to forget. It was Oct. 18, 2003 and the Penguins were hosting Los Angeles for their regular-season opener. Fleury was just an 18-year-old kid, having been drafted first overall by Pittsburgh – who traded up to get him – just a few months earlier.
The Quebec native led his team out onto the ice wearing bright yellow pads, glove and blocker and skated into the crease to defend his net. Of all the ways he could have faced his first shot, he probably hadn’t foreseen it would be on a shorthanded breakaway just 38 seconds into the game. Pretty much a goalie's worst nightmare.
“A tough first shot. It was a goal. That was pretty rough,” Fleury said with a laugh. “But I had a penalty shot I stopped, and then I stopped Zigmund Palffy on a breakaway. You watch those guys growing up and then you face them on the ice, it was pretty cool.”
Fleury made a total of 48 saves in the game and was named the evening’s No. 1 star for his efforts. The standing-room crowd of 16,986 that packed Mellon Arena, witnessing the No. 1 overall pick in action for the first time, showered the teenager with chants of “FLEURY, FLEURY!”
They knew he was something special. And he’s proven them right.
In the years since that night, Fleury has firmly established himself as the Penguins’ franchise netminder. He could go down as, if he’s not already considered, the greatest goalie to ever play for the organization.
Now 29 years old (he turns 30 on Nov. 28), Fleury is the Penguins’ longest-tenured player – having played all 10-plus seasons of his NHL career with Pittsburgh. Which is an incredible feat in itself, but especially so in the salary-cap era.
“It’s crazy, unbelievable how quick time goes by,” Fleury said. “Seems like I just started and now I’m an old guy on the team. But it’s good. I think you learn stuff from life in general and hockey-wise too. It’s pretty fun that I’m still here and I enjoy my time playing goal here.”
Fleury backstopped the team to a Stanley Cup championship and two Stanley Cup Final appearances. No other active goaltender has more postseason wins than Fleury’s 52, which are second only to Tom Barrasso (56) in club history while his eight playoff shutouts are a record.
Fleury is the Penguins’ all-time regular-season leader in wins (295), games played (540) and shutouts (31). He currently sits five victories shy of becoming just the 31st goalie in NHL history to win 300 games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when Fleury does reach 300, he will become one of the youngest goaltenders in league history to hit that milestone.
However, out of all his accomplishments (apart from winning the Cup in 2009), Fleury’s fondest memory is that first game.
“It’s been my dream since I was a kid, just to play hockey in the NHL,” Fleury said. “And the Penguins made that possible for me, for many years. I’m grateful to them, and hopefully it keeps going for a while.”
And it will, as the team re-signed Fleury to a four-year contract extension on Wednesday. The deal begins with the 2015-16 season and runs through 2018-19. It has an average annual value of $5.75 million.
“It feels great. I’m really happy,” Fleury said. “I’ve spent a lot of time here, it’s like my home. My teammates, I’ve been with them for a while. The organization has been great to me all these years, the city, the fans. I couldn’t be more happy.”
And the guys in the locker room couldn’t be happier for their beloved teammate.
As head coach Mike Johnston said, “he’s such a key guy in the dressing room. We talk often about how he plays on the ice and what he’s done on the ice, but in and around the guys in the room, he’s a real key chemistry guy. He’s always energetic, he’s always got a smile on his face and I think that’s the biggest thing. Guys battle hard for him, they play for him.”
One of those players is captain Sidney Crosby, who’s had Fleury as his netminder ever since he entered the league back in 2005-06. The two have been seatmates on every team plane ride since then.
“As a player and as a teammate, I’ve played with him for a long time and happy that I’m going to be playing with him for a longer period of time,” Crosby smiled. “So it’s nice. Happy that he’s got it done and can kind of move forward.”
General manager Jim Rutherford wanted to reach a deal with Fleury sooner rather than later, as the netminder was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season if an extension wasn’t inked by then.
“When a player is in the last year of his contract – especially an important player like Marc – you wonder if, when you get closer to the end of the season, if it’s not in the back of his mind,” Rutherford said. “So I think it’s good we’ve got it cleared up.”
And now, like Crosby said, Fleury can move forward.
“It’s just nice to get it over with and not think about it any more,” Fleury said. “Just go play hockey, try to win some games and just focus on hockey, you know? Nothing else. So it’s nice it’s finally done.”