The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have just wrapped up a Tuesday afternoon practice at Soutpointe. It was basically their first of the regular season.
The 82-game marathon begins Friday night against the New York Rangers at Mellon Arena. Two days ago the Pens lost their pre-season finale in Detroit 4-1. Marc-Andre Fleury allowed all four goals. In fact, he gave up 13 in about 8 ½ periods of play during the pre-season.
Yet there was Fleury on Tuesday afternoon getting out of his pads without a single media member waiting for him by his locker. I approached the lonely goaltender for a few quotes.
He expressed some concern about how he had dealt with traffic in front of his net during the pre-season. “I’m getting used to that. You don’t see a lot of people coming at you in training camp. You know, guys hiding you. It was good to get some games like that.”
After three minutes I thanked Fleury for my unexpected 1-on-1 with a guy who couldn’t get a moment’s peace from the media just three months ago. I looked around to see who else people were interviewing. Sid already talked. Geno wasn’t around. Were the blogs right? Did the Pens really re-acquire Jaromir Jagr? Did Mario come out of retirement again? Did I miss something big?
Nope. Other reporters were merely milling around in scrums talking to the likes of Gonchar, Goligoski, Orpik, and Rupp.
Yes, Mike Rupp was more of a talking point four days in advance of a Penguin season opener than Marc-Andre Fleury.
Truth be told, the sports media is nothing but a conduit between the fans and the teams. If writers aren’t getting e-mails from listeners about a player, if talk show hosts aren’t getting calls from fans about a topic, the assumption by the media is that there isn’t much of a story there. So maybe that’s why no one was playing attention to the goalie following his somewhat bumpy pre-season performance.
Is this Bizzaro World? Is the Pittsburgh hockey world on its ear?
Or maybe Pittsburgh as a sports community is just more concerned with 4th quarter defense, Limas Sweed dropping balls, and Ben Roethlisberger’s WWE field trip.
Maybe nobody noticed that Fleury (and the whole defending Stanley Cup Champion team, for that matter) didn’t have a particularly sharp pre-season.
Or maybe nobody is worried.
Now, wait! That can’t be it. This is Marc-Andre Fleury we are talking about here. This is Pittsburgh. The relationship between those two entities isn’t the same without concern. Or scrutiny. Or occasional illogical panic.
This could be one very strange hockey season. If Marc-Andre Fleury is now actually treated with the latitude he deserves by his fan base for being a Cup winning goaltender, a hole may rip in the universe.
Who will Penguin fans blame for every loss? How will they analyze games? Whose benching will they call for? What will they chew their finger nails over?
Things will never be the same.
For his part, Fleury isn’t making a connection between his post season success and his image in this season.
“I wanted to win the Stanley Cup because I wanted to win. It’s something we worked hard for. I wanted to win it for my teammates,” said Fleury, “As far as what other people think, well….whatever. You know?”
Actually… I do. “Whatever…You know” was my mentality when a shocking amount of spit-drooling idiots called or e-mailed my 105.9 “The X” radio show demanding Fleury’s benching after that total team meltdown in game 5 of the Cup final in Detroit.
By shocking amount, I mean about 3 out of every 10 callers. That was still way too many. Since that little parade downtown last June, I’ve frequently wondered how many of those morons felt Mathieu Garon would’ve stopped 48-of-50 Red Wing shots in Games 6 & 7.
And I shouldn’t single out Pittsburgh fans when it comes to their opinion on Fleury. At every stop of “The Flower’s” junior career, or international career, Canadian media and fans have judged Fleury based on what he hadn’t done… not what he had accomplished.
But now he has won a Cup. Measure that against Luongo, or Lundqvist, or Nabokov. And yes, Canada, you can measure in metric system if you like. In case the country has forgotten, the Stanley Cup is 89.54 centimeters tall. Marc-Andre Fleury knows that. But maybe Canada has forgotten. After all, it’s been almost two decades since the Stanley Cup has resided in that country.
“I didn’t win it to shut people up,” says Fleury, “What matters to me is to have the respect of my teammates and my coaches.”
And that he does have. Even amidst a torrent of public criticism at times last year during the Eastern Conference semi finals, during the Cup finals, during the previous Cup finals in’08, after their first round exit in 2007, no one in the Penguin locker room balked at the prospect of Fleury eventually winning a cup.
Take veteran Bill Guerin for instance. In a morgue-like Mellon Arena twelve hours after Fleury was pulled in Game 5 against the Wings, an unshaven, grizzled Guerin stared the media down and said, “I know a lot of that is out there and surrounds Marc Andre. But I can tell you, none of it ever comes from inside that room.”
Nor should it this year. Especially now that Fleury’s resume reads “Stanley Cup Winning Goaltender.” At 24-years-old by the way. He probably has more than one in him. And often times goalies with more than one Cup also have the words “Hall of Fame” on their resumes too.
So maybe in 2009-’10 Fleury will play without the weight of city and lofty pedigree sitting on his back. Maybe he will be even better as a result (as if back to back Stanley Cup Final appearances weren’t good enough).
Maybe the next time he gives up five goals in a game…and surely he will at some point… the Mellon Arena faithful will look for other reasons as to why it happened.
Then again, I did get five more e-mails today saying the Steelers should bench Ben Roethlisberger for Charlie Batch. So maybe I’m asking for too much.