By Dave Campbell, The Associated Press on January 1, 2024.
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) – The two decades Marc-Andre Fleury has spent in the NHL have passed as quickly for him as the airborne pucks that speed toward him in the net each time he takes the ice.
Now the fourth goalie in history to appear in 1,000 games, a mark he made with Minnesota in a 3-2 loss to Winnipeg on Sunday, Fleury is on the verge of another lofty milestone in his 20th season in the league. He’s one win away from a tie for second place on the career wins list, a perch he could reach this week with fellow Wild goalie Filip Gustavsson on injured reserve.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to play hockey for so long and do something I love,” Fleury said. “I think loving the game is something that kept me going through all the years.”
Over 691 games with Pittsburgh, 192 with Vegas, 45 with Chicago and 72 and counting with Minnesota, Fleury has grown his reputation as one of the most personable and reliable goalies to ever put on the pads since the Penguins made him the first pick in the 2003 draft out of Quebec.
Fleury has backstopped three Stanley Cup championship teams, won the 2021 Vezina Award for the best goalie in the NHL and, most importantly for his legacy, gained the unrelenting trust and admiration of his teammates along the way.
“He’s a natural born leader,” Wild defenceman Brock Faber said. “The positivity he brings to the rink every day, that’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s truly an honour to be able to play in front of him and be a teammate of his.”
Fleury has 550 wins in 1,000 games, trailing Patrick Roy (551 wins in 1,029 games) for second place behind career leader Martin Brodeur (691 wins in 1,266 games).
The only other goalie in NHL history to play in 1,000 games was Roberto Luongo (489 wins in 1,044 games). Brodeur, Luongo and Roy all recorded praise for Fleury in a video tribute the Wild assembled for him. His teammates let him take the ice for a solo lap to commence pre-game warmups Sunday.
“The first thing that jumps out at you is just the quality person he is – his attitude, how he is around the rink, his ability to communicate,” said Wild coach John Hynes, who first got to know Fleury with the Penguins when he coached their AHL affiliate from 2009-15. “He’s still the same guy.”
With his easy smile and fondness for locker room pranks, Fleury’s fun-loving disposition belies the intensity of his competitiveness on the ice. He has tried over the years to fight the temptation to smash his stick after a soft goal or a frustrating defeat, proudly noting in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he gave a stick away to a kid at the game in Edmonton instead of venting some anger on his equipment following a 4-3 loss.
“I try to smile, get back to work and practice and move on. I find that’s how you get out of a slump quicker, if you always keep grinding,” said Fleury, who is 6-6-2 with a 3.16 goals-against average this season.
“But still now, it’s not easy. There are some days when I want to break stuff, right? It’s still always a learning thing, trying to stay calm and composed.”
Fleury was the subject of rare controversy when he broke NHL policy and wore a custom-made mask designed for Native American Heritage night before the game on Nov. 24. Fleury’s wife is Indigenous. The mask later sold at a charity auction for more than $35,000.
“I was wearing a mask for 15 minutes in warmups. It was for a great cause, so to me it all made sense,” Fleury said.
The two-year, $7-million contract Fleury signed with the Wild four months after he was acquired in a trade with the Blackhawks will expire this summer. He turns 40 on Nov. 28. The Wild have Gustavsson carrying a $3.75 million annual salary cap charge for the next two seasons and 21-year-old prospect Jesper Wallstedt waiting in the AHL.
Though Fleury has refused to rule out a return, clearly disinterested in the fuss of a farewell tour, he has embraced with grace the league-wide attention that’s been paid lately to his games and wins milestones.
“I do this because I love it. I feel very fortunate to play. I take a lot of pride in winning games and helping my team, and hopefully I can be remembered as a guy who had some success along the way,” said Fleury, who has three children between the ages of 4 and 10. “I can just go live a quiet life after this – no TV, no spotlight – and that’s fine with me.”
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