It's hard to find a player in the NHL more universally beloved than Marc-Andre Fleury. It's also hard to find a player that was embraced by a city as quickly as Vegas did with Fleury.
After Thursday's 6-4 loss to Arizona, the Blackhawks flew to Vegas and practiced at T-Mobile Arena on Friday in preparation for Saturday night's showdown against the Golden Knights. It was the first time Fleury stepped onto the ice at his former home rink since being traded to Chicago over the offseason.
"I don't know, it just feels weird so far," an always smiling Fleury told reporters. "We got in late last night, but the staff at the hotel was nice and welcoming. It’s weird to come to the rink and be in this locker room, be on the other side and all that, but I think it’ll be different tomorrow. Maybe emotional as well."
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No doubt it will bring out a lot of emotions in Fleury, who will surely be honored throughout the night. By the fans in warmups. When the starting lineups are announced. And most certainly in a video tribute.
Fleury got a taste of what the in-game distractions might be like when he was recently honored in Chicago for his 500th career NHL win. Seemingly every TV timeout involved a video message from former teammates, coaches and peers, congratulating him on the accomplishment.
"I feel like in Chicago, it wasn’t bad," Fleury said. "I thought it was actually fun to hear from the guys and old teammates and stuff, see what they got to say. I remember my first time back in Pittsburgh was harder with that.
"In a way, you want to keep it business and stay serious and just worry about winning the game, you know? But on the other hand, I had such a great time here and made many good memories, so it may be hard..."
Heck, it might even be emotional for some of Fleury's former teammates as well.
"I’m really looking forward to that moment after the video he’s going to get," Jonathan Marchessault said. "He built this city. He built sports in this city. He’s the one who made us successful. I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it."
Of course, Fleury backstopped the Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final during their inaugural season in 2017. He was part of the fabric and culture of Vegas, and it's why it took him a bit to process getting traded to the Blackhawks.
"I think it’s behind me, you know?" Fleury said. "It's months ago, right? I'll always be grateful for my time here with this organization but I’m fortunate that the Blackhawks wanted me to play for them and continue doing what I love, playing hockey, and I’m grateful for that."
While Fleury is grateful to still be playing, it hasn't exactly been the smoothest season for the future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's been one of the league's best goaltenders over the last two months after a disastrous start for the entire team, but the Blackhawks have lost six in a row and have an enormous uphill battle to climb if they want to get back into the playoff picture.
"It’s been hard, it's been frustrating sometimes," Fleury said. "I think everybody expected more out of us and on the season, myself included, and it’s been frustrating sometimes to lose so much, right? But we have a great bunch of guys, we try our best, we try to get out of the hole and win some games.
"It's still a work in progress and just gotta keep chipping out at it. I've got to be better. If I can make a couple saves, then we win. So yeah, hopefully we can get a win tomorrow and go from there."
A big two points are on the line for the Blackhawks, and nobody is losing sight of that. But Saturday will be all about Fleury and his return to Vegas, and rightfully so.
Fleury has gone through this once before when he returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since being taken by Vegas in the expansion draft. And now he'll have another wave of emotions when the Golden Knights faithful show their love and appreciation to him on Saturday, although you can bet it will be reciprocated by Fleury.
"Both places I loved playing, I loved living there and made a lot of connections, a lot of friends," Fleury said. "The fans were awesome to me in Pittsburgh, awesome to me in Vegas. That’s what makes it emotional when you come back."