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Graney: Fans’ love for Marc-Andre Fleury still runs deep

The tribute video lasted a minute and 15 seconds Saturday night, and you can imagine the waves of emotion flowing through T-Mobile Arena as it played out high above the ice.

Marc-Andre Fleury was back. The standing ovation was thunderous.

He returned for the first time since being traded to Chicago, the goaltender whose four-year run with the Golden Knights forged a relationship between player and fans not seen on most any global sporting map.

Some handed out flowers outside before arena doors opened. You couldn’t blink and not see a No. 29 jersey. Families, large groups, small children, old and young alike wearing them. There were signs and posters and lines three rows deep hugging the glass during warmups.

No surprise. The fan base has from a magical expansion season in 2017 been beyond invested in arguably the most popular athlete in Las Vegas history. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with people caring, no matter how bizarre the loyalty to Fleury has seemed at times.

“I think the situation with Vegas — new team, him being a star that was open arms to come here and embrace the opportunity — I think all that played together,” Knights coach Pete DeBoer said. “I think probably a lot like that first season, you don’t see that very often. That type of love from fans.”

Had to be moved

Here’s the part most never will and yet should accept: The Knights had to trade Fleury. As difficult as it was for fans to accept the idea that he might be moved, it was just as easy for management to see why it should occur.

The story has been written. The Knights no longer could carry $12 million in salary between Fleury and Robin Lehner. The latter makes $2 million less annually and is seven years younger. Slam dunk. No-brainer.

Fleury more than understood being traded was a real possibility. He was kept informed as the process commenced. The outrage locally that he learned of the deal on Twitter — as if that’s the first time he knew such a move might happen — was totally misplaced.

I get it. Fans adored him. Still do. They needed someone to lash out at, and Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon and president of hockey operations George McPhee were low-hanging fruit.

But these things don’t happen in a vacuum. There are always two sides to any such tale. The age of instant information is just that.

Whether the Knights have erred in not alerting players they have been moved before social media confirms is plausible, but it doesn’t change the most important narrative. They have always made such decisions based on what they believe will improve the team. Nobody tries to win it all more than the Knights.

And no fan should argue with that.

“I liked his personality, how great he was for the community here in Las Vegas,” Knights fan and Fleury-sweater wearing Tammy Schleppegrell said. “I loved how he played. But as much as I didn’t like (trading him), I understood it. It’s the reality of the business. However, I loved him being here. I suppose you have to find the balance in all of it.”

Meet Tammy, one of the few sensible souls.

Earns the victory

When the tribute video had concluded and a throng of 18,367 was on its feet, Fleury skated around his crease, clapping appreciation and waving to the crowd.

He then patted his chest.

And then a puck was dropped and reality returned.

“It’s behind me,” Fleury said of his time in Las Vegas. “I’ll always be grateful for my time here. I loved the fans. They were awesome. That’s what makes it emotional.”

Their feelings remain mutual.

Oh, yeah. Chicago beat the Golden Knights 2-1.

Fleury stopped all but one of 31 shots.

Because, on this night, of course he did.

He departed to another standing ovation.

Because, on this night, of course he did.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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