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Kessel receives warm welcome in return to Pittsburgh

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Before the Penguins hosted Phil Kessel and the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night at PPG Paints Arena, Rick Tocchet joked that the winger was going to try and stay stone-faced. But try as he might, Kessel couldn't keep the smile off his face.

Back in Pittsburgh for the first time since being traded this offseason, the Penguins recognized Kessel with a 'Welcome Back Phil' video on the jumbotron during the first TV timeout of the first period.

The fans welcomed their beloved two-time Stanley Cup Champion with an incredible standing ovation and a roaring and prolonged reception, while his former Penguins teammates all tapped their sticks for the duration of the video.

"I had some good years here," Kessel said after the game. "I have some great memories. The fans gave me a warm welcome. I love this city, I love them. They treat me great here. It was really nice." 

After the video finished playing, Kessel did a twirl and saluted the fans with his stick. Upon returning to the bench, he was shown on the board a couple more times. The cheers got even louder, and the smile got even bigger.

Video: ARI@PIT: Kessel honored in return to Pittsburgh

"Whenever he started smiling, I feel like we don't see him smile a lot, so we were freaking out," said Cammi Artman, a college student who came to the game with her friend Lauren Starr.

"You know me, I'm not the biggest for that," Kessel said with a laugh. "But it was nice of them to do that and I appreciate it."

And there weren't just smiles.

While the Coyotes fell to the Penguins by a score of 2-0, it was still an emotional first game back for Kessel, who has always been vocal about how much he loved playing in Pittsburgh and became an absolute legend during his time here.

"Phil got a little teary-eyed," Tocchet said. "It was great by the fans and the organization."

On the ice, he provided the offensive production that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford had hoped for when first acquiring him from Toronto in 2015, particularly during the playoffs.

In back-to-back Stanley Cup runs, Kessel collected 18 goals and 27 assists for a total of 45 points in 49 games. Many within the hockey world felt that he was plenty worthy of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2016 after leading the Penguins with 10 goals and 22 points.

"He was a really good player," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "He was such a big part of the Stanley Cup runs that we had here and the success that this team has had over the last handful of years."

Off the ice, Kessel brought a unique personality to the locker room, where he was very popular with his teammates. They all adored him, particularly for how he kept things light both intentionally - and unintentionally, with the pranks his teammates pulled - at times.

"I remember talking to (Sidney Crosby) when Phil first got here and when he left, he goes, 'He just brought a different vibe in that room,'" said Tocchet, who is in his third season as Coyotes head coach after serving as an assistant with Pittsburgh from 2014-17. "This game is very intense and like Mike Sullivan says, it's not a warm and fuzzy type of game. But Phil would bring that element that kind of kept guys calm sometimes. Those guys are hard to find."

And most of all, Kessel was beloved by the fan base here, who appreciated his everyman appeal.

"He seems like a guy you would want to sit and have a talk with and have a beer with," said Penguins season ticket holder Carl Mastrocola. "Just seems like a great guy."

The crowd was littered with No. 81 Kessel jerseys along with plenty of signs, including one from Artman and Starr that was a nod to the 'Phil for President' shirt Kessel once wore.

"I wanted to bring it back because it was such a funny joke," Starr said.

Meanwhile, the Mastrocolas wore matching shirts they ordered online with Kessel's face all over it. The reception for Kessel turned out to be everything they hoped for and more.

"That was the longest standing ovation I've seen," Sharon said.

"And the fact that he acknowledged it was great," Carl added. "A lot of guys would just sit there with their heads down. But he's one of us."

And always will be.

"A big piece of his heart is here," Tocchet said. "He won two Stanley Cups here. Fans love him, (so does) the whole organization. It was a good thing. I'm excited for him because it's a deserved thing for him to come back and get recognized."

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