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Short Shifts

Mom thrilled Phil Kessel signed her baby at Penguins championship parade

Wendy Neilson went to festivities with one goal in mind, achieved it

by Cristina Ledra @cledra / NHL.com Staff Writer

Wendy Neilson's day started with a hassle and ended with cringeworthy misfortune, but the fact remains: Phil Kessel signed her baby.

Neilson and her husband Chris Pribisco are longtime, diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fans and fell in love with Kessel after he was traded to the team July 1, 2015. Ellie Pribisco was born nine months after the Penguins' 2016 Stanley Cup championship, and when they couldn't find a newborn-sized Penguins jersey for her, they got her a custom onesie with Kessel's No. 81 on the back.

Neilson started Wednesday waiting for a bank to open because an ATM ate her debit card the night before. Her husband was at work, so she, her three children and a friend hustled over to the parade route. By the time they got there, the crowd had already gathered and they were in the back.

She decided to ask the other fans if she could take the baby to the front to try to get Kessel's autograph on the No. 81 onesie.

"We were just standing there, up close to the railing," said Ashley Strong-Schlaner, who left her home in New Jersey with her husband Matt at 1 a.m. and drove all night to get to the parade. "A woman comes up behind me and she said, 'Do you mind if i get in front of you?' She had her daughter in her hands, and she was like, 'I want Phil Kessel to sign my daughter's shirt.'

"I said, 'Oh good luck, more power to you.' I didn't think she was ever going to get it because they're usually on the trucks."

Schlaner was one of several fans that allowed Neilson to get into prime position. Sure enough, Kessel came off his truck and began walking around near them, engaging with fans.

"He came down and the crowd that was around us started chanting 'Sign the baby!'" Neilson told NHL.com. "He came and signed for a little kid that was next to us and he signed another kid's shirt and he started to kind of walk away and they were like, 'Sign the baby!' and he looked and he came flying over and he had this huge grin on his face.

"He had the pen and he kept saying, 'I don't want to hurt her,' and I was like, 'She's fine.'

Though the two women had only known each other for a few moments, Schlaner captured the moment with her cellphone camera and texted photos to Neilson, whose phone had died.

"She was like so thrilled," Schlaner said. "Her hands were full, and I noticed she didn't have a camera, so I just snapped a picture for her so she can not only have the shirt but the picture of him signing it."

Schlaner also attended the Penguins' 2009 and 2016 parades, so she understood what a special occasion this was. She also had a couple of big moments this time around. Conor Sheary signed her mother-in-law's arm, and she got to touch the Stanley Cup when Sidney Crosby walked in front of her with it.

Video: Fans celebrate Cup win at Penguins victory parade

"If it were me, I would want someone to do that for me," she said. "It was such a great experience and I was so happy for her. I couldn't believe she actually got the signature."

This happy tale took an unfortunate turn when Neilson got on a crowded train to leave the area and another fan spilled his drink down Ellie's back, ruining the autograph and staining the onesie.

Even though Neilson was upset about losing the signature, she still has the memories of Kessel signing her baby and, thanks to a stranger, the pictures that captured the magical moment.

"I've been smiling ear to ear all day," she said.

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