Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 9, 2022

A Hero Is Welcomed Home

You can’t go home again.  So Thomas Wolfe, or, more accurately, his editor Edward Aswell told us eight decades ago with the publication of the so-titled novel two years after Wolfe’s tragic death at the age of 37.  Aswell assembled the book from his charge’s final unpublished manuscript, a vast tome of more than one million words that under the editor’s care yielded two more complete novels.  As with most of Wolfe’s works, “You Can’t Go Home Again” explores the ever-changing nature of society, but with a distinctly autobiographical tone.  It’s the story of George Webber, an author whose successful novels use his North Carolina hometown as their locale.  But when Webber returns to the fictional Libya Hill, he finds old friends and neighbors angry and bitter over his portrayals of them and their community.

The local reaction to the central character’s work gives the title its literal meaning, but as Webber travels to New York, Paris, and eventually Berlin, where the Nazis are claiming power, he observes constant social and political ferment that quickly renders old systems and mores antique and makes reliance on them little more than a foolish escape into the gauzy comfort of memory.  The arc parallels Wolfe’s life, from his upbringing in Asheville North Carolina to his time in Gotham and frequent European excursions.  It also reflects his growing disillusionment with both the excesses of capitalism and the rising tyranny in Germany.

A lifetime after “You Can’t Go Home Again” was published, its central theme seems even more apt, for in the intervening decades the pace of change has increased exponentially.  And yet, in sports at least, every once a great while and against all odds, there is a moment when a group of fans and players and a team come together to prove that memories are not without a special power of their own. 

To be sure, it does not happen often.  Change is constant in all our games, and especially when it involves the movement of players, change can be hard.  Center fielder Johnny Damon was a much-loved and integral part of the 2004 Red Sox roster that ended Boston’s long championship drought.  He batted .304 that year and slugged a pair of home runs, one a grand slam, in Boston’s decisive Game 7 ALCS victory over New York.  But just two seasons later he returned to Fenway Park wearing the road grays of the visiting Yankees.  Fans who had once adored Damon displayed their changed opinion of the former hero by wearing his old Red Sox jersey, but with the “A” in his last name on the back replaced by an “E.”   Even sainted Tom Brady, the leader of six duck boat parades through the streets of Boston after Super Bowl victories by the New England Patriots, heard far more boos than cheers when he reappeared at Gillette Stadium early this season wearing the unfamiliar colors of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But Saturday night in Las Vegas, when the visiting goaltender took the ice at T-Mobile Arena, fans of the Vegas Golden Knights were in a far more charitable mood.  As James Earl Jones, portraying the fictional Terrence Mann, said in a movie about a different sport, “And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters.  The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”  Saturday night, fans of the Golden Knights welcomed Marc-Andre Fleury home and thanked him for the memories.

That it happened in Las Vegas is itself a reminder of how both society and sports have changed.  The city was known mostly for its proximity to the recently constructed Hoover Dam when Wolfe’s book was published in 1940.  As it claimed its longtime role as the country’s lone redoubt for legalized gambling, it also became forbidden territory for professional sports.  Every major league, through multiple commissioners, steered clear of the Nevada desert and made it clear to players that they should do the same.  But in recent years, as legal betting spread first to Atlantic City, then to casinos on Indigenous land, and finally became sanctioned by multiple states, that attitude softened.  With the rise of online gambling and the skyrocketing popularity of fantasy sports – gambling in all but name – professional leagues have abandoned their old strictures.  The NHL expanded to Vegas beginning with the 2017-18 season, followed by the NFL approving the relocation of the Raiders.

As an expansion team, the Golden Knights stocked their initial roster through an expansion draft, in which a new franchise is allowed to select players that other teams make available.  By the time the Knights were ready to populate the team’s initial squad, Fleury had played a key role on three Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins teams.  But he was also 32 years old, and carried a significant salary cap hit for Pittsburgh, so with his consent the Pens left Fleury unprotected in the expansion draft, and he immediately became the face of the new Nevada franchise.

If the Penguins’ management assumed Fleury would fade away in Las Vegas, they were sorely mistaken.  He led his new club to the Stanley Cup Finals in its very first year of existence, and to at least the Conference Finals in three of its first four seasons, while also cementing his off-ice persona by working with multiple local charitable organizations.  Last year, Fleury posted some of the best goaltending numbers of his lengthy career, including a 1.98 goals against average that helped him win the Vezina Trophy.  But by then he was 36, and the Knights decided to commit to Robin Lehner as their goalie of the future by trading Fleury to Chicago during the offseason.

With a Vezina and three Cups on his resume, Fleury contemplated retirement, but ultimately decided to go one more round, now in the third uniform of his career.  This season he won his 500th game, becoming just the third netminder in NHL history to do so, and after Saturday night, he has now beaten all 32 current NHL franchises.  That’s because he stopped 31 of 32 shots from the NHL’s third-highest scoring team, holding Vegas to its lowest score since being shut out by Toronto on November 2.  He needed to, since Fleury plays for one of the weakest offensive teams in the league, but his Chicago teammates did just enough to skate off with a 2-1 victory.

For their part, Vegas fans didn’t seem to mind losing this game at all.  They roared their welcome when Fleury led Chicago onto the ice for warmups, holding up signs and pounding the glass.  Then they somehow managed to increase the decibel level when a video tribute was played prior to the start of the game.  And some even cheered when the visiting goaltender denied the best efforts of the home team’s skaters.  For one night, in Las Vegas of all places, memory and sentiment ruled.  It was the night the city’s first professional sports hero came home.   

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