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Smile matters: Lessons from Marc-Andre Fleury’s remarkable career

Smile matters: Lessons from Marc-Andre Fleury’s remarkable career

“Marc-Andre is like chocolate, you just can’t not like him. He’s always smiling, always having fun, but he’s very professional, even on bad days and through tough times in his career. I’m not surprised a lot of people are cheering for him because he is one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever seen.”

~ Jocelyn Thibault, who played two seasons with Fleury.

When Jocelyn Thibault talks about Marc-Andre Fleury’s smile as ever-present, he isn’t kidding.

Hockey fans have seen it through the Vegas Golden Knights storybook run to the Western Conference Final. Whether he is tickling the ear of Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele from behind at the end of a bitter scrum in front of his net, doing the wave with fans in Vegas during a break in action, meeting the dog, Bark-Andre Fleury, whose name he inspired after a practice, talking to the media, or in the process of making a series-altering save against the San Jose Sharks in overtime, Fleury’s smile remains.

 

It has been that way through the highs and lows of a 14-year career that started with the Pittsburgh Penguins, includes three Stanley Cup championships, and seems destined for the Hall of Fame.

So when InGoal Magazine approached five of Fleury’s former playing parters to talk about him becoming the 13th goalie — and second fastest — with 400 NHL wins late in the season, we shouldn’t have been surprised when most talked first about that famous and ever-present smile.

Maybe we expected to hear more about his incredible athleticism and willingness to evolve his style in recent years. The latter is something that has been covered extensively in this space, with Fleury making significant changes in his positioning and post play with former Penguins goaltending coach Mike Bales, and did receive some attention from his former backups. Maybe we expected to hear more about Fleury’s explosive athletic ability, which has been on display more regularly this season as part of the positional preferences of Vegas goaltending coach Dave Prior (and InGoal will have a full feature on that early, including a long discussion with Prior about his philosophy, next week). But all of Fleury’s former playing partners agreed the biggest key to his rise on the list of all-time goaltending greats is his attitude.

It goes beyond the ever-present smile, to the way Fleury treats first-year players with the same sincerity and respect as 10-year veterans, to the way he had handled tough times in his career. And more than his adoption of reverse-VH, there are important lessons in Fleury’s approach for young goalies.

“It’s a great lesson for younger players, especially goalies,” said Thibault, who played with Fleury on the Penguins from 2005 to 2007, and is his now general manager of the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “He is very genuine, and the last couple of years in Pittsburgh he has gone through some tougher times where he kind of lost his No. 1 spot a couple times and had to to fight for everything he had and teammates see that, teammates appreciate the fact he remained a good teammate, he remained upbeat and he encouraged Matt Murray.”

In good times and bad, Fleury never stopped having fun in Pittsburgh, and his smile and attitude were infectious, whether it was a big game or a mid-season practice on the road. (Photo by Clint Trahan/InGoalMag)

That positive attitude didn’t waver, even as Murray took over as the No. 1 and Fleury allowed the Penguins to expose him to Vegas in the expansion draft, and it wasn’t lost on teammates.

“Players respect that and what that does is when it’s your turn to be in the fight and back in the net, teammates want to do more for you,” Thibault said. “You want your teammates to play for you but you have to earn that, it’s that respect and throughout his career he has been able to do that because you could tell in Pittsburgh whenever he stepped in the net players wanted to play hard for him.”

Fleury’s positive approach has been there since Day One; Andy Chiodo got to witness it first hand in the 2004 American Hockey League playoffs during their first professional season.

Fleury started that year behind an overmatched Penguins team in the NHL after Pittsburgh picked him first in the 2003 NHL Draft, but was loaned to Canada for the World Junior Hockey Championships, then finished his QMJHL season before being called up to Wilkes-Barre for the AHL playoffs. He only got into a couple games, and spent rest of the run to the Calder Cup Final watching from the press box.

“He was a first overall pick so he could have made waves sitting in the stands watching us go on a two-month playoff run and he didn’t,” said Chiodo, who finished his 14-year career in Austria last season and now works as a goaltending coach for Ottawa in the Ontario Hockey League and radio host for TSN1050 in Toronto. “He was supportive. We’d talk shop, we supported one another, and fast forward 15 years and he carries himself the same way. The constant has been his amazing character. He’s positive, he enjoys life, he works his ass off, he always has a smile on this face and deep down he knows he’s good.”

Like Thibault, Chiodo sees some good lessons there for young goalies.

“Everything he’s overcome is a testament to his really positive demeanour, a testament that he lets things roll off his shoulders, that he’s really calm, and he loves life and he loves the game because you can’t get through those things unless you love the game and that’s what he’s done for 15-plus years,” Chiodo said.

Whether he’s doing cartwheels in full gear in the hallway, which cameras captured before a playoff game last season, or clowning around with teammates before taking the ice, Fleury always has fun. (photo by Buren Foster/InGoal Magazine)

That doesn’t mean Fleury never gets mad, but there are more lessons in how he handles it.

“He gets mad, but 10 seconds later you can joke with him, so he’s not mad for a long time,” said Dany Sabourin, who played with Fleury during two stints in the Pittsburgh organization from 2004-06 and 2007-09, and roomed with the infamous prankster when he was up with the Penguins.

“Marc-Andre was always ready to do a trick in the hotel room, like ‘hey Sabu, ets go prank that room.’ On the road, that was his prime time to do a trick on someone,” said Sabourin, who retired last summer and is now a goaltending coach with Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL. “He’s a good person to hang around with because he is a funny guy. But when it’s time to work, he works, but always with a smile. He can work seven days a week and he’s still going to have fun because he always does it with a smile on.”

That approach rubbed off on Brent Johnson, who played his last three seasons with Fleury from 2009-12.

“Everyone deals with their inner demons differently and I struggled almost yearly with some kind of inconsistency,” said Brent Johnson, who now works as a television analyst covering the Washington Capitals . “And one of the main things was seeing Marc at the other end in practice, he has the hockey world by the tail and you see how much fun he is having, how he approaches it and then you try to do that and it comes through. It is important to have fun out on the ice.”

Like Sabourin, Johnson has seen Fleury get upset but more importantly, his teammates didn’t see it.

“I’ve never seen him angry like you and I might think, doing something I would do like slam sticks or get mad and show it on the outside, he’s never done that,” Johnson said. “I think I have seen Marc, while playing with him, through some of his toughest stretches in goal. And that was back after they had won the Cup in Detroit, the next year was fine, then he struggled at times and in playoffs couldn’t seem to get it done. But he never ever showed that anger on the outside. He has never projected that on the outside he’s never projected it on any of his teammates, it’s just something I know he was going through because we would discuess it and I’ve had talks where I was more of a mentor than a partner, just trying to get his mental framework where you just build that confidce as much as you can.”

Johnson also pointed at Fleury’s joy on the ice as a great example to young goalies.

“Being able to have fun on the ice when most goalies take it so seriously, and then when those struggles do come they don’t know how to get out of it as quickly, I think he has a great ability to do that.”

The key, said Jeff Zatkoff, is the sincerity behind it. Fleury genuinely loves the game and his teammates.

“He genuinely cared about everyone he plays with, which is rare in this day and age,” said Zatkoff, who played with Fleury from 2013-16 and is now in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. “Even if he is not the one in the net, I always felt like he genuinely wanted me to do well, or wanted [Murray] to do well. Genuine is a good way to describe him. It doesn’t matter if you played in the League 10 years or one, he treats everyone the same and that goes a long way in the locker room. … The guys love playing for him, and then combine that with his talent and it’s a recipe for success.”

For a goalie with so much talent, it’s worth noting it’s Fleury’s attitude others point to as a key to his success. And a good lesson for young goalies hoping to follow in his footsteps.

About The Author

Kevin Woodley

Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and covered the 2010 Olympics for The AP.

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