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Merci, Flower

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

What made this Stanley Cup championship so bittersweet was knowing that it marked the end of Marc-Andre Fleury's time in Pittsburgh. Even though we all knew it was coming, that doesn't make it any easier. 

I'll be completely honest - a lump forms in my throat every time I think about it. It was so hard saying goodbye to Marc-Andre, even though it's not like we'll never see him again. He was the franchise goalie here for over a decade, so it's fitting that he's going to be the first goalie in franchise history for the Vegas Golden Knights. It's going to be a great situation for him and his family. It's just tough to think of him in another city when he means so much to this one.

It's been so emotional and so awesome seeing the outpouring of love and gratitude for Fleury these last couple of weeks throughout Pittsburgh, the city he had called home for the last 14 years. The parade was incredible in that regard. There were so many amazing signs saying "Thank you Fleury!" and "Merci Marc-Andre!", and every time I saw one, I teared up. It's truly been wonderful seeing what he's meant to everyone here. I've known 'Flower' for almost seven years now, and it's difficult to put into words what he means to me, but I'm going to try.

When I started with the Penguins in November of 2010, I had just turned 22 years old earlier that month. I felt like I was in way over my head and had doubts as to whether I could do the job. It's intimidating walking into a locker room of professional athletes, especially when you're young and female, but my boss Sam Kasan made sure that the one of the first players I met was Flower.

I knew who he was coming from Detroit and watching the Red Wings and the Penguins play each other in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals as a fan in 2008 and '09. But that was before social media and websites were as big as they are now - and before there was such a demand to know about players as people - so I didn't know much about Fleury. All I knew was what I had seen on the ice, not off of it. I had no idea what kind of person he was, and coming in, I actually wasn't a huge fan of him in general considering that he had beaten my hometown team just over a year earlier - with that spectacular save on Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds of Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena still in my mind.

I don't remember exactly what I was expecting when I met him, but I remember being just blown away by how welcoming and friendly he was. Goalies tend to be quirky, and while Flower is definitely unique, he's not your stereotypical netminder. I was especially blown away by that huge smile of his that I quickly realized was his signature. It made me feel a lot better about my new job knowing I would be dealing with guys like him.

I remember watching my first practice at Southpointe and being delighted by how energetic he was, so much so that I asked to write about his hilarious shootout antics for my first-ever article on the Penguins website. The spin-o-ramas, pushups, squats and windmills - I was so impressed by how much fun he was having, and wanted to try and get that across to fans who might not have known that about him either.

From there, we built a close rapport that came with seeing each other so much during the course of a season. Being a Penguins employee that covers the team on a daily basis, both at home and on the road, I was around Fleury a lot. And whether it was at Southpointe, PPG Paints Arena, Cranberry or some rink on the road, I always looked forward to the moment when he would walk into the locker room after a practice or morning skate and greet me with, "Hi Meesh!" as he tossed his jersey in the laundry bin.

Just saying hello to him always brightened my day, and when I did have time to sit down and have a conversation with him, he always had me cracking up. No matter what highs or lows he was experiencing, he still always had that smile on his face and still always had time for me. Even as the franchise goaltender, longest-tenured Penguin, member of the core and just such an important part of the team, which is pretty remarkable.

That helped me so much as I grew up here. I'm 28 now, and I've certainly gone through my own personal and professional highs and lows these last seven years as I've gone from a kid just out of college to an adult. I've had good days and bad days in that locker room, but knowing I could always count on Flower to be that constant, smiling presence made things a lot easier.

I have so many good memories from over the years, and here's one of my favorites. I do a piece on the videoboard called the 'Honda Keys to Victory' which plays before home games. A few years back, I had gotten replaced as the talent for that piece and when the first piece without me aired, our PR staff got a frantic visit from Fleury asking where I was. We learned that the videoboard feed was broadcast onto the TVs in the locker room and the Keys to Victory had become part of Fleury's pregame routine, as he watched it while he warmed up and got ready to play.

Flower would usually sit with one of the trainers and try to guess what each of my three Keys were. When he didn't see me on there, he got thrown off. Needless to say, I was put back on as the talent shortly after. Some days he would chirp me when he thought they weren't good, and he'd give me credit when they were. Sometimes the segment wouldn't run because of a pregame ceremony or something like that - or Flower would miss them - and at that point I'd get a text from the trainer asking what they were so he could tell Flower.

Funnily enough, this past season, I was in the PensTV studio shooting those Keys when I came back to my cubicle and found it destroyed. I keep a few pairs of shoes under my desk, and those had been stacked onto my file cabinet. Everything on top of my desk had been cleared and stacked onto my chair. My makeup bag and pencil holders had been emptied out and scattered. I had become a victim of one of Flower's infamous pranks. He denied it, but witnesses placed him at the scene.

I'll always smile thinking about those memories, and I'll always smile when I think about just how much fun he has playing a game he loves. We have a clip of Fleury from 2003 when he was first drafted by Pittsburgh, saying, "When I'm at the rink, for sure I have to play good, work hard. But I know it's a game, and I like to enjoy every moment that I can. So even before a game, I don't need to be alone in a corner or be thinking. I don't know, I just go there and try to have fun with the guys and then on the ice."

He's had that mentality in the 14 years since, which is one of the best things about Flower. He just loves being around his teammates and loves taking the ice with them. I mean, this is a guy who spent what he knew would likely be his last season in Pittsburgh wearing a helmet painted with names and likenesses of beloved teammates from years past. And it's not just the shootout antics that stand out. Remember when cameras caught him doing a cartwheel in full equipment before a game?

I loved watching him during warmups, where he always made sure to toss a puck over the glass to a young fan before handing off another as he left the ice. I especially loved it when an opposing player would ring a shot off one of his posts or the crossbar, and Sam and I would watch and laugh as he gave his 'good friends' a tap of appreciation, or even sometimes a kiss. I loved how you could see that huge smile through his helmet after he made a big save or weathered a flurry. I love how he's such a kid at heart and always had a blast when they skated with youth players or visited Children's Hospital.

He's such a competitor and he wants to win. And if he has a bad night - say he gets pulled from a game - he's not happy when he leaves the ice. But he moves on quickly, and the next morning, he comes to the rink with that same smile on his face. That smile could be happy, proud, sheepish or mischievous, but it was always there and always endearing.

Flower was just such a constant presence from the day I started. In my years of working for the team he didn't miss any time with injuries until the last couple of seasons. I don't think it's going to hit me that he's gone until I walk in that locker room this September for training camp and see another nameplate on his locker stall. That's going to be a tough moment.

And it's not just Flower I'll miss. His wife, Veronique, is truly his better half. 'V' is just such a classy, lovely person. She has always been so involved in giving back to the community, as she is a member of the Board of Directors for the Penguins Foundation and spearheaded so many of the projects the Penguins Wives Association did. I always loved running into her and getting to chat with her. She's so kind and friendly, and her and Marc have two beautiful little daughters, Estelle and Scarlett.

I'm grateful for the chance to have known the Fleury family for as long as I have. Whenever people have asked me who my favorite player in the Penguins locker room is, I've always answered Marc-Andre Fleury, and my reason is that he is one of the best people I'll ever meet in my life. No matter where I go from here, he'll always stand out to me as one of the kindest, friendliest and funniest human beings I've had the pleasure of knowing. I'll always remember how nice he was to me on Day 1 and every day after that, and I'll always be so appreciative of that. Merci, Flower.

(P.S. My only regret is not getting to see him score a goal in a Penguins uniform. We talked about it all the time and how excited he would be if that happened. However, if he ends up scoring one in a Golden Knights uniform at some point, I'm going to be going crazy cheering for him).

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