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Penguins Good as goal: Penguins' prized pick built one step at a time

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SOREL-TRACY, Quebec -- Marc-Andre Fleury climbs to the platform of his backyard swimming pool, raises his arms, takes two long strides and leaps in cannonball-style. He emerges from the water with a wide smile, looking around to make sure everyone seated nearby is soaked.

Marc-Andre Fleury takes a cannonball-style plunge into his family's backyard pool. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Click photo to see larger version.


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A few yards away, he sees his younger sister kicking a soccer ball. He springs from the pool to join her, then spends the next half-hour rolling around in the grass attempting to block her shots.

Their father, Andre Fleury, is seated on the lawn nearby, relaxing on Saint Jean-Baptiste Day, a major holiday in French-speaking Canada.

He shakes his head.

"Look at him. He is 18, a child," Andre says of his son. "They all talk about him like a star. And soon, he will be leaving us to go to Pittsburgh, maybe to become a star. But not now. Right now, he is just our smiling, happy child."

He hails from a quaint, French-speaking town in the Montreal region. He has a sweetheart he has known since childhood. He was the first overall pick in the National Hockey League Entry Draft. He is universally regarded as the best player at his position to come along in years. And he is expected to be nothing less than the savior of Pittsburgh's struggling hockey franchise.

Mario Lemieux?

No, that was 20 years ago.

This is Marc-Andre Fleury, and he has almost nothing in common with Lemieux.

Fleury's job is to prevent goals rather than score them. He became only the third goaltender selected first in the 35-year history of the NHL draft when the Penguins traded up to get him last weekend, and many scouts believe he is the most talented and poised that they have ever seen.

And, unlike the reserved, almost regal Lemieux, off the ice, Fleury is impish and infectious.

"He is innocent in every way, especially his love for the game," said Pascal Vincent, Fleury's coach with his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. "For him, every day he can go on the rink and have fun is a good one. A totally pure kid. And nothing will change him. Not going to a big city like Pittsburgh. Not the NHL. Not money. Nothing."

FLEURY STROLLS down Rue Olympique with his father and waves to the handful of neighbors lounging or working outside. Two children rush up to him to offer congratulatory embraces for the Penguins drafting him. A shirtless man in a yard flexes his arms triumphantly.

From a porch, an older woman shouts out in French: "Just don't forget to tell everybody who was your first coach!"

She is Ginette Bibeau, and she once was Fleury's babysitter. When he was 5 and first donned goaltender pads, she took the first shots against him, with the garage door as the net.

She also is his aunt and one of eight homeowners on Rue Olympique who are direct family.

The street has 10 houses.

Five of those houses, including Fleury's, were built by Andre Fleury, a carpenter for 28 years. He also had a hand in dozens of other local structures, including a modern marina along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Marc-Andre Fleury in his home's dining room, along with father Andre, mother France and sister Marylene. Andre, a carpenter, built the house. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Click photo to see larger version.

"It's amazing what he has done," Marc-Andre said. "The winters here are long, and you have to keep building, no matter how cold it is. The heat in the summer can be bad, too, but he never stops. We joke that he built all of Sorel-Tracy."

For Andre, a rugged but gregarious sort who speaks little English and almost always has a cigarette in one hand and a Molson in the other, work never was a laughing matter. He played hockey in his younger days -- he enjoys boasting of having been a center in his early teens alongside Pierre Mondou, who went on to the Montreal Canadiens -- but he never gave thought to discarding his tool box.

Nor did he ever seriously consider showing his son how to use a hammer.

"I never wanted that for Marc-Andre," Andre said. "I thought he could be a good student, go to school."

There was more to it, said his mother, France.

"He was not very good with his hands, and we all knew that he was not going to be a carpenter," she said, laughing. "We thought he was meant to wear a tie."

What the Fleurys did not imagine was that Marc-Andre would excel at hockey. Andre insists even now that he did not believe his son would reach the NHL until he was named most valuable player at the presitigious World Junior Championships this past winter after helping Canada win the silver medal.

"I did not see Marc-Andre in the NHL until that tournament," Andre said. "Don't ask why. I just didn't."

Despite that, Marc-Andre said, family support never wavered. Andre and France took turns driving him to practices and games, often several hours outside Sorel-Tracy, and sister Marylene, 16, almost always tagged along.

"I've been to every city in the Quebec League, wherever he goes," Marylene said. "I always just loved to watch him play. To me, the way he plays is a beautiful thing to watch."

Marc-Andre frequently returns the favor. Marylene is active in her school's soccer, basketball and flag football programs, excelling in the first two. She even attempted hockey in a boys' league last year but quit because it was too rough.

"Marc-Andre and Marylene share everything," Andre said. "They are closer than I can describe."

The basement of the Fleury home is not only Marc-Andre's living space in the off-season but also a shrine to his achievements. Each of the 14 sweaters he has worn, from his first team to the one the Penguins presented him at the draft, is hung on the wall in chronological order.

"We try to keep up with all the newspaper articles and everything," France said. "But everything is happening so fast."

BENJAMIN COURNOYER is watching the videotape of the moment the Penguins called his friend's name at the draft.

"I was at work that day, so my dad recorded it for me," he says. "I already knew what happened by the time I saw it the first time, but I still ... I was shaking when I saw it. All of Sorel was, I'm sure."

Cournoyer laughs at hearing the television announcers describing Fleury's penchant for remaining cool and calm on the ice. They played together in their early teens, and he recalls a day when another side was exposed.

"We were 14, and Marc-Andre was just sent back down to the AA level of midgets after spending a little while in AAA. Now, most guys who go to AAA, even for a little bit, either act like hot shots or they act really upset about it. He didn't do either. We had our first practice, and he was himself, all happy and working hard."

That changed when practice ended and most of Fleury's teammates had left the rink.

"He was at the bench by himself and he got sick. He was vomiting there, and I was the only one who could see. We all thought he was fine. But that's how upset he was about getting sent back down. He just didn't want us to know."

Marc-Andre's family extends beyond his house, beyond even Rue Olympique. His hometown is the kind of place where few introductions are needed.

Marc-Andre Fleury's game room includes a display of the sweater the Penguins gave him at the NHL Entry Draft last weekend, along with his credentials for the event. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Click photo to see larger version.

Sorel-Tracy is an isolated city of 34,000, a 90-minute drive northeast of Montreal but not in any way connected, as there is little besides forest between the two. It has a steel mill which casts a large shadow literally and economically, a tree-lined town square, a 10-shop mall, three ice rinks and low-level but neatly maintained homes. Its signature structures are along the water, where hundreds of residents own boats and where a ferry departs regularly for the other side of the St. Lawrence.

"It's a quiet place," Fleury said. "Nobody ever leaves, and not too many new people come in. I probably will come back someday, too, maybe get a place by the water."

It is quieter to Fleury than to some others.

"He says that because he doesn't go out and get hammered every night, like a lot of people in Sorel do," Cournoyer said. "This can be a hard-drinking town."

There also is drag racing with cars and boats, along with several night clubs for teenagers to pass the time, often dangerously. Fleury allows a small wink when asked about the drag racing, and he admits to having the odd drink, but his friends laugh loudly when asked if he stays out of trouble.

"Marc-Andre will go out and have a good time," said Mathieu Dauplaise, Fleury's friend since they were 6. "But he's the kind to walk behind the rest of the pack and just watch what's going on."

At home, the story is little different. France called him "an easy son, a mother's dream," citing an episode of egg-throwing at a neighbor's house as the most grievous behavioral offense of his life.

Vincent, his junior coach, said Fleury performs as much community work for Cape Breton as any of his players.

"I've coached him now for three years," Vincent said, "and I'm still trying to find something bad about him."

When Fleury socializes, most often, it is with girlfriend Veronique at his side. They have been linked for nearly two years, although their acquaintance extends much longer, as she lives across the street and two houses down.

Fleury manages only a giggle when the topic of marriage arises.

His father seems to have a clearer outlook.

"She is a proper girl," Andre said, nodding. "They are very nice together."

THE PHONE IS RINGING at the Fleury home almost without pause. One call offers congratulations. The next seeks an interview. The next is from the agent who will handle his rookie contract with the Penguins, which could net him as much as $12 million in his first three years.

His sister, Marylene, rolls her eyes at it all.

"We are getting used to it," she says. "This is life now."

She fairly snaps when asked if all the attention and money might change her brother.

"Jamais!"

Never.

At age 6, shortly after his aunt began peppering him with pucks in the driveway, Fleury tried hockey on ice. His first skating came on a homemade rink on land near the end of Rue Olympique, which today is part of a cornfield.

He tried playing forward but soon converted to goaltender.

"I liked the pads, the mask, everything," he said. "It was cool."

After a two-year fling with baseball -- he was a catcher, of course -- his focus shifted squarely to hockey. Even today, his interests off the ice are extremely limited, other than the occasional fishing trip with his friends on the St. Lawrence.

"I don't have time," he said. "Hockey always has been my life."

His athleticism and passion for learning the position made him stand out early.

"It was easy to play in front of him," recalled Dauplaise, his childhood friend and a defenseman in front of Fleury from age 6 to 10. "We could all go into the attack because we knew he would stop all the shots himself."

Fleury rose rapidly through the developmental ranks, and he got his most significant break at age 15 when Cape Breton drafted him into the Quebec League. That was 800 miles from home, as well as a cultural leap, as Fleury was forced to begin learning English. Most of Cape Breton is Scottish by descent.

"It was hard," he said. "But I knew I needed to fit in, so I tried hard."

The road trips were hard, too. None of his team's opponent was closer than a five-hour bus ride, while some were as long as 25 hours.

Still, Fleury excelled immediately.

The Fleury family hangs all of Marc-Andre's sweaters from his career, in chronological order, around the game-room wall. The one he received from the Penguins, not pictured, is the latest entry. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Click photo to see larger version.

He was supposed to be the team's backup in his first season, 2000-01, but he impressed Vincent enough that the team traded away a goaltender four years older to make room for him. He shared starting duties that year, almost unheard of for a player so young.

"I'd be lying if I said I thought Marc-Andre had a chance to play for us right away," Vincent said. "He forced me to play him, made me believe in him."

Fleury did so in more ways than one.

In his rookie season, he was benched during a game after giving up two goals in rapid succession. Vincent ordered Fleury to keep track of all shots taken by the opponent on a chart for the rest of the game, something he and his staff require of all goaltenders on the bench.

After the game, Vincent looked at the chart and was stunned to find it blank. He turned it over and saw a message scribbled: "I am not a statistician. I am a goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury."

"I was so mad I couldn't speak. He even signed it, so I knew he wrote it," Vincent recalled "But it showed me something. Here was this quiet kid who was so confident in his ability, even at 15, that he felt he had to speak his mind. I knew I had somebody who wanted to be great."

Fleury gradually drew more attention in his three years at Cape Breton despite playing behind a lackluster team, but scouts were not fully sold on him as a budding NHL star until the World Junior Championships this past winter in Halifax, in southern Nova Scotia. He was 4-1 at that tournament, the lone loss coming to Russia in the title game, and he stopped an incredible 95.7 percent of the shots he faced.

His most memorable moment came in the quarterfinal round.

The day before Canada was to face Finland, a case of the flu had Fleury bedridden with stomach trouble. He was not well enough to play the game, starting it on the bench, but he was inserted when the Finns began to gain momentum. He stopped all 13 shots to preserve the victory, and he found instant celebrity across his homeland.

After the tournament, the mayor of Cape Breton declared Jan. 10 "Marc-Andre Fleury Day."

"He grew up there," his mother, France, said of the tournament. "All his life, he had taken little steps up. That was a big one."

That performance weighed heavily in the Penguins' decision to make a trade with the Florida Panthers to acquire the No. 1 pick in the draft and select Fleury, who otherwise was a virtual lock to go to the Carolina Hurricanes in the No. 2 slot. The last time the Penguins had the first overall pick was 1984, when they chose Lemieux.

"He's a special player," Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick said. "Our scouts felt that way for months, and they felt he was the player we needed to get as we move forward."

The Penguins, who have pared nearly $15 million from their player payroll in the past few months with an eye toward rebuilding with youth, make no secret of their expectations for Fleury. He is 6 feet 1 1/2, 172 pounds, has exceptionally quick reflexes and is considered to be technically flawless. Already, he is being likened to goaltending legends of the game such as Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.

"If you're building a team from scratch, the way you want to do it is from the goal out," Patrick said. "We feel we've gotten off to a tremendous start with Marc-Andre."

Fleury never has been to Pittsburgh, never seen Lemieux play in person, never heard much about the rest of the Penguins' roster. But already, he has his sights set on the September start of training camp, where he hopes to make the team right away.

Andre Fleury seems significantly less concerned about whether his son will succeed or fail than about the possibility his approach to the game might shift.

"For Marc-Andre, hockey is simple: He takes his mask and pads to the rink with a smile on his face," Andre said. "Maybe he will do that in Cape Breton next season, maybe in Pittsburgh. One step at a time. No pressure, please. He is not Mario Lemieux. He is our little boy."

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