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Fleury has tearful goodbye

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Marc-Andre Fleury arrived at PPG Paints Arena Thursday afternoon for cleanout day knowing that this will likely be the last time he ever steps foot inside the Pens locker room. 

Fleury, who has spent the past 12-plus seasons as the Pens' franchise goaltender, has a face - and a smile - that has become as synonymous with Pittsburgh hockey as Sidney Crosby or Mario Lemieux.

"It's been such a long time, a great ride," Fleury, 32, said. "I've met a lot of good people. This feels like home for me."

Fleury has tried his best not to think of the future, wherever that may be. The emotions are too strong.

"I tried not to too much because as you can see, I'm struggling with this," Fleury said with red eyes. "I just tried to enjoy the moment. I tried to remember the good times."

Fleury arrived in Pittsburgh as a wide-eyed, wide-smiling 18-year-old rookie in 2003 after the Pens selected him with the first-overall pick in that summer's NHL Draft.

In the subsequent 14 years he has won three Stanley Cup championships (2009, '16, '17), while collecting franchise records for games played (691), wins (375), shutouts (44), playoff games played (115), playoff wins (62) and playoff shutouts (10).

Off the ice, Fleury matured as a person in Pittsburgh. He married his childhood sweetheart, Veronique, and the couple are raising their two daughters, Estelle and Scarlett.

Meanwhile, the Pens fan base has faithfully stood by Fleury's side through the incredible highs and lows of his career in Pittsburgh. The building erupted whenever he played or chanted his name whenever he made a big save.

While answering reporters' questions about the fan support, Fleury had to pause to fight back tears. After a second he continued, "The support I got here, it was fun to win and fun to play those games."

Fleury was given a proper send off by the fans during the team's Stanley Cup parade on Wednesday afternoon through downtown Pittsburgh. The chants returned. Signs of thanks and love for Fleury were everywhere to be seen.

Of course, the goalie jumped out of his moving truck several times to shake hands, pose for pictures and even give the occasional hug. One girl succumbed to her own tears following Fleury's embrace.

That is the power of this man.

"That's pretty crazy," Fleury said. "There were so many signs, so many people. It was crazy. People chanting my name. It was emotional, but it was a good time."

Even his teammates took note.

"It's pretty clear what he means to this town," veteran center Matt Cullen said. "He rode in the truck behind me in the parade. Listening to the fans, everything that they said to him and the support they gave him, it's pretty clear what he means to this community."

As adored as Fleury is to the team's fan base, he is even more beloved by his teammates. Fleury brings a positive attitude to the rink everyday. His sense of humor and pranks kept the room loose and enjoyable during the long months of the season.

"It's sad. He's the type of guy that I want in my life at all times," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "If I could follow that guy around all day, I'd be happy. He's such a fun guy to be a round and I love that guy so much."

Captain Sidney Crosby, who was Fleury's seatmate on the team plane for road trips, has played all 12 years of his NHL career with Fleury as a teammate. He couldn't fathom the idea of not having him around.

"It's something that I don't even like having to talk about," Crosby said. "Playing with someone that long, going through what we did, it's pretty special. We've got some great memories and we'll see what happens with things here in the future."

"I know what (Fleury) means to this team, and I haven't played with many better teammates than him," said Cullen, who has played in the NHL for 19 years.

Fleury ended his Pens career by lifting the Stanley Cup. But more importantly than that, he was the biggest reason the club was able to win its fifth Stanley Cup championship.

The Pens opened the postseason against Columbus at home. Projected starter Matt Murray injured his hamstring during warmups and Fleury became the emergency starter.

Fleury would go on to upend the Blue Jackets in five games and then top the Washington Capitals, the best team in the regular season, in a dramatic seven-game series.

In that pivotal seventh game, Fleury made 29 saves to record his franchise-record 10th shutout in the postseason and propel the Pens past the hated Caps.

Fleury made one of the best saves of his career in that contest as well when historical sniper Alex Ovechkin teed off a one-timer from the slot that was targeted for the top corner of the net. But Fleury managed to get the end of his stick on the puck to deflect it away. He laughably gave his stick a stroke of thanks for the save.

"That was a good memory," Fleury recalled. "I had a chance to play for the Cup again, play for this team and win. It was good."

Even Pens general manager Jim Rutherford said that without the fantastic play of Fleury, the Pens would not have survived the Washington series. His teammates concurred on that point.

"I just remember when he stepped in in Game 1 of the playoffs, the way that he played and what he did for us and the way he stepped up," Cullen said.

After his lap with Lord Stanley, Fleury passed the Cup - and the torch - to Murray.

"He's just so selfless," Murray said. "He puts the needs of the team and his teammates above his own, treats everybody with respect. He's one of the best, most genuine human beings you'll ever meet. And he was like that and then some with me.

"He welcomed me with open arms. He did a lot for me."

Although the Pens would love to have Fleury back next season and return that formidable 1-2 punch in goal, it seems like an impossible situation.

It isn't impossible because the two men don't get along - they are good friends - but because there isn't enough net to be shared.

Fleury wants to be a No. 1 goalie on a team. And that won't be in Pittsburgh.

"Obviously Matt's the guy here and he'll be here for many years," Fleury said. "I love to play. I love the game. I love to be in there and to compete, the challenge. I like everything about it."

That's what made the past two seasons so difficult for Fleury. The franchise goaltender was a mere spectator during the team's 2016 championship run. And he had to split time in the net during the 2016-17 season for the first time in his career.

And while it killed Fleury inside to not be playing, he still put his team first.

"I'm not going to make this about me," Fleury said after Murray took over in goal during the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa.

Fleury threw his entire support behind Murray and his teammates because that is the type of guy that he is: selfless.

"I know what he's gone through these last couple of seasons, sitting next to him in the room," Cullen said. "He comes to the rink with a smile on his face every day and does his best to support his teammates. And it's never about him.

"He's a pretty unique person and a pretty unique teammate. Whatever happens for him, whoever, gets him, is going to be very lucky."

Fleury will forever cherish the team's final run because he had a chance to compete for, and win, a Stanley Cup for his teammates, for his fans, for his home. One last time.

"It was so much fun. I knew things would change after the season for me. I had the chance to play here at home…" Fleury paused while dabbing at his eyes. 

Fleury took all those memories with him as he left the locker room one last time. Left PPG Paints Arena one last time. Drove home one last time.

Fleury has left his mark on this city. And this city left its mark on Fleury. Time may pass, but the memories will forever remain.

"I remember how much fun I had playing and just winning at the end," Fleury said. "And taking a lap with the Cup again."

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