The Vegas Golden Knights were voted into existence in 2016, played their first game in 2017 and made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018, yet it could be said that Las Vegas didn’t truly become a major-league town until July 27, 2021.
That’s the day the franchise traded its most beloved player—goalkeeper Marc-André Fleury—to the Chicago Blackhawks. Welcome to the painful world of pro sports, Knights fans.
Sure, the organization has sent away popular faces before—choosing not to re-sign James Neal and David Perron after Season 1 and shipping off Nate Schmidt last year, for example—but this felt much different. Fleury not only racked up the most jaw-dropping highlights during the Golden Knights’ first four seasons on the ice, he produced many memorable moments off it, too, from his personable postgame interviews to his appearances throughout the community.
And this town loved him for it all, in a way not felt since UNLV’s title-contending basketball squads of the early 1990s. Though he spent 13 of his 17 years in Pittsburgh, it felt like Fleury became one of us, bonding with his new town the same way so many of us have after arriving, perhaps skeptically, from someplace else. His desire to spend his remaining career here echoed that bond to the end.
So how are Vegas fans supposed to feel now, many of them with well-worn Fleury jerseys hanging in their closets, some with photos of their hero close at hand? Should they move on from the Knights and embrace some other team—perhaps Fleury’s new club, the Blackhawks? Or should they shrug it off, continue supporting the hometown organization and be thankful for the four years they got to cheer on the man?
Obviously, that’s a personal decision, one fans must make for themselves. I will say, however, that the Golden Knights’ relentless pursuit of a championship ought to be admired, even if it also brings tears. Growing up a Phoenix Suns fan in Arizona, I watched that team shuffle the deck almost every offseason to push toward a title. And though it meant pulling a few posters of personal-favorite players off my walls, looking back I can only respect what they did. It might never have resulted in the trophy we all sought, but it kept us in the hunt year after year. If the Knights can do that, it will be awfully tough to criticize.
Could VGK personnel have handled things better with Fleury, on a personal level, at the end? Perhaps. None of us was there, so we don’t really know. Could the Knights have received more in return for a goalkeeper coming off a Vezina-winning campaign? I’m not an NHL GM, but I assume if more was available, the Knights would gladly have taken it. Did Vegas do enough with the $7 million in cap space cleared out by Fleury’s departure to justify it? Only time will tell, though no matter what happens, we should all agree keeping an expensive goalie on the bench every night isn’t the clearest path to a Stanley Cup. And should Robin Lehner have gone, rather than Fleury? Considering Lehner is six years younger, costs less, has four controllable seasons remaining and produces excellent numbers in his own right, that’s a tough case to make.
But of course, Golden Knights fans will make those cases, and others, in defense of their Flower, and who can really blame them? He was Las Vegas’ first true pro sports icon, and it’s tough to let go. Just understand, being a fan of professional sports means rooting for a business entity, one with real-world financial constraints—in this case the unshakable salary cap imposed upon all NHL teams by the league. Would you really rather root for Fleury in net behind a subpar VGK team, further away from a title, than see the Knights continue chasing the Cup without him?
It can be a tough call to make, yet it’s the type every pro sports fan encounters at some point. And as much as it might hurt, for Las Vegans, it’s yet another step toward becoming a sports town in the truest sense of the word.