It started in Nashville, 14 years ago.
Kind of ironic right now.
The 2003 Draft was at the Bridgestone Arena. As a young 18-year-old from Quebec, all I was hoping for was to hear my name. Pittsburgh had the third pick overall, but at the last minute, they made a trade with Florida to pick first. I had heard rumors that I might get picked by one of the first few teams, but didn’t believe it until I heard Craig Patrick call my name.
Pittsburgh. I would have been happy anywhere, but I got drafted by Pittsburgh. What a blessing. I would, maybe, get to play with Mario Lemieux. I would, hopefully, get to play for the team that had won back-to-back Stanley Cups in ’91-92. I would have a shot at playing in the NHL.
The next 14 years were beyond my wildest dreams.
Saying that the last few weeks have been bittersweet would be an understatement. As we reached the Stanley Cup finals, I knew very well that my time as a Penguin was nearing its end. I love to play. I love the game, and everything about it. Putting the mask on, diving around, stopping the puck, feeling the intensity of the game, feeling useful. I wish I could have been in net for my last game as a Penguin. But we raised the Cup, again, and it made all the sacrifices worthy. I felt proud — proud of my teammates for battling through injuries, for showing a lot of character, and for winning two years in a row. I am grateful that I had the chance to contribute to our success through the first rounds. And I feel very fortunate that the last time I have skated with a Penguins jersey, it will have been with the Stanley Cup in my hands. Not that it wasn’t an emotional moment.
Fourteen years. Nearly half of my life. I remember my first training camp, in September 2003, like it was yesterday. I was so nervous. There are so many expectations on a first-round pick, and I didn’t want to let anybody down. I just tried to do my best, and wanted to leave a good impression. But when you face Mario Lemieux in training camp, it can be quite intimidating, to say the least.
Everyone knows him as Le Magnifique, a hockey legend. I always loved watching him growing up. I remember the first time I stopped Mario in practice. It was a simple warmup shot. But you better believe that I kept that puck — and still have it at home. Mario is a great role model for me — his loyalty to the team, his contributions to the community, how he handles himself and how he and Nathalie raised four great, humble kids. I’ll always be thankful for their support throughout the years.
My first home game was against the Kings at the Igloo on Oct. 10, 2003. My dream was becoming a reality. Maybe the excitement was a little high. So high, that, well … I forgot something. As everybody was getting ready to head out of the locker room, I made my way towards the ice, fist bumped a few guys (including Marc Bergevin and Mario) and then I realized that I had forgotten my stick. It was a pretty funny walk of shame past all my teammates to go grab my stick. As I was walking back, Mario cracked a little smile and said “You’re going to need that tonight, kid.”
I guess he was right. First shot of the game, first shot I faced in the NHL, and it goes in. That wasn’t part of my dream. But then, thankfully, it got better. I stopped Ziggy Palffy — a guy I watched growing up — on a breakaway. Then I stopped a penalty shot and finished the game with 46 saves on 48 shots. We lost that game, but that one will remain one of my best memories in Pittsburgh.
Even that first night, the fans were chanting Fleu-ry, Fleu-ry. They were holding up signs that said Welcome Home. I honestly couldn’t believe it. The rush from that, to tell you the truth, I can’t even describe it. It is just unbelievable. And it never gets old, trust me. The fans in Pittsburgh have been tremendous with me since the very beginning.
For a hockey player to get to play nearly 14 years in one city is a blessing. It wasn’t all fun and games, though. It was obviously difficult losing so much in the first few seasons. But then we got Geno. And then Sid. And then Staal (to name just a few). We started winning, and the Igloo was booming. It was a success built from figuring things out together, as a group. The loss to Detroit in the 2008 finals was one of the toughest experiences of my career. Being so close to reaching that Cup and then having to watch the Wings celebrate their win … it was brutal, but we needed it. I believe that, in the end, that loss helped prepare us for what was to come.
Game 7 of the 2009 finals in Detroit is without a doubt one of my favorite moments as a Penguin. Seeing my good friend Max Talbot score two huge goals for us was incredible. And then, of course, making that save against Lidstrom in the last seconds was something I will never forget. I proudly sported a deep bruise on my ribs from that save for weeks following that game. I’ll always remember my teammates jumping on the ice, racing toward me with the biggest smiles. The feeling of winning the Stanley Cup that night is indescribable.
Over the years, I probably don’t have to tell you, it’s been ups and downs. But one thing I will carry with me, long after I leave Pittsburgh — honestly, long after my playing career is over — is how amazing and strong the support was that I received from the fans.
One of my best memories is from earlier this season, actually. We had just been on a road trip and it was our first game back home against Tampa Bay. I had been struggling a bit. I couldn’t buy a save, and I wasn’t feeling great about it. Everybody was getting ready for the anthem, and the crowd started chanting my name. It made no sense. I wasn’t playing well. The game hadn’t even started yet. But they were behind me anyway.
Maybe they could sense that I was feeling a little down, and I needed it. We ended up winning the game, things turned around for me, and I ended up having a great season. That moment was the turning point, and it was because of our fans.
So thank you, fans. I wish I could put into words how much of an impact your support has made on me and my family. We have become Pittsburghers. My wife graduated from Robert Morris University, my daughters were born at Magee-Womens Hospital (sorry our commercial has been blasting on your TVs for more than a year), and our first house was in Moon. Pittsburgh and its people will forever be in our hearts.
Thank you to the Penguins ownership: to Mario and Ron, for their support and for striving to be the best organization by providing the team with the best people and the best facilities.
Thank you to the organization: from the great GMs to the coaches who believed in me. Thank you to Gilles Meloche and Mike Bales, my goalie coaches, whom I’ve spent most of my career with, for always being there for me. Thank you to the medical, front office and equipment staff for all the good times and friendships.
Thank you to my teammates. My friends. I am not good with the emotional stuff, and this is not easy. Over the years I have seen a lot of good people come and go. It is definitely one of the toughest parts of the business — making good friends and having to say goodbye. I have played with a lot of good dudes in Pittsburgh, and made so many good friends.
Thanks, Sid, for all the years. We spent a lot of time together, always sat next to each other on the plane, behind one another on the bus, plus all the dinners before every game on the road. Thanks for helping me get through tough times and for being a good friend. It’s tough to say goodbye. I know we were both trying to avoid it. You’re the best. Next time we face each other, make sure you keep your head up. The poke check will be coming, like that one time in Rimouski.
Duper, Tanger, Geno, Kuni — it’s been an honor to go through all of this together. I couldn’t have picked better teammates and friends.
And I guess I will stop there. Not because I have run out of people to thank or things to say — when it comes to my time as a Penguin, I think I could just go on forever.
But thank you, everyone, for the support in the last week. All the calls, messages, pictures, the nice articles and videos. It has meant so much to me and my family as we are getting ready to begin a new chapter in our lives. It seems like just yesterday that I was a kid in this blue suit that my agent bought me for the draft, wearing this tie that I didn’t even know how to tie. (I later got fined a few times for coming to the games with it inappropriately tied.)
And now here I am. I have a wife, two kids, and three Cups. I’m talking about my memories and saying my goodbyes. It might be an adjustment for my girls. They love waving the Terrible Towel and chanting, “Let’s Go Pens.”
Actually, when they see the Pens logo they say, “Go Papa Go!”
But I think we will tell them that moving somewhere new at a young age — yes it might be scary, but we just have to hang in there. We’re going to figure things out, and we’re going to find our way. And then we’ll blink, and suddenly that strange and new place … It won’t seem strange, or new, at all. It might even feel like home.
I still have a lot to wrap my mind around. I am honored that the Golden Knights picked me and I am looking forward to continuing to play the game I love. I don’t know how it will feel when I set foot in the PPG Paints Arena in February as the Vegas goaltender. Truthfully, right now I can’t even think about it. But what I do know is that I will be thrilled to see you all again.
Thanks, Pittsburgh. I will miss you.