Flower's farewell: Marc-Andre Fleury calls time with Penguins 'a great ride'
It takes blood, sweat and tears for a hockey team to win the Stanley Cup.
For the Penguins, the blood and sweat were spilled into rinks from Columbus to Washington to Ottawa to Nashville over the past two months.
The tears came Thursday morning.
That's when an emotional Marc-Andre Fleury struggled to keep his composure as he discussed his imminent departure from the only NHL team he has ever known.
Fleury met with reporters as the Penguins got together one last time for exit physicals, meetings and locker cleanout.
He admitted he has waived the no-movement clause in his contract for the purposes of being exposed to next Wednesday's expansion draft, and all signs point to the 32-year-old goaltender heading to the Vegas Golden Knights.
"It's been such a long time, a great ride," said Fleury, the longest-tenured athlete in Pittsburgh professional sports who played his first game for the Penguins in 2003. "I've met a lot of good people. This feels like home for me."
Fleury would have been perfectly content to play out his career in the city that has become his home, but circumstances conspired against him.
There was the emergence of 23-year-old Matt Murray sooner than anyone expected. There was an expansion draft with teams being allowed to protect only one goalie.
As sad as it makes him to say it, Fleury knows it's time to move on.
"I love to play," Fleury said. "I love the game. I love to be in there and compete, the challenge of it. I like everything about it. Obviously Matt's the guy here. He will be for many years. The salary cap also, I think I take a big chunk of that. It couldn't work anymore."
It sure worked for a long time, though.
Fleury will finish his Penguins tenure with a franchise-record 375 wins in the regular season and 62 more in the playoffs, both top-15 totals in NHL history. Along the way, he has acquired almost as many teammates who will vouch for his character.
Take the word of the man with whom he competed directly for playing time the last two seasons.
"Anybody who gets to play with Flower, much less a goalie partner of Flower, is really lucky to have him," Murray said. "He's one of the best, most genuine human beings you'll ever meet. He was like that and then some with me."
Or take the word of the face of the game whose entire career has been spent with Fleury as a teammate.
"It's something that I don't even like having to talk about it," Sidney Crosby said of Fleury's departure. "Playing with someone that long, going through what we did, it's pretty special. We've got some great memories."
Fleury, who has two years and $11.5 million left on his contract, is not the only longtime Crosby running mate who could be reaching the end of his time with the Penguins. Chris Kunitz, who frequently played on the captain's left wing, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1. He, too, could be moving on.
The same goes for some other key players from the championships roster: Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey to name the most prominent.
General manager Jim Rutherford said he has a plan for the UFAs-to-be.
"We're not going to close the door on any of them, but with the cap the way it is, it's tight fitting guys in," Rutherford said. "We're not going to be able to fit everybody in. What I've suggested is they get their agent to go to market on July 1 and see what's out there.
"Then, if they want to come back to the Penguins, come back and say, 'Here's what we got. Can you get to that number or can you get close to that number?' And then they can make a decision."
For Fleury, though, as difficult as it is, that decision already has been made.
"As you can see, I'm struggling with this," Fleury said. "I just try to enjoy the moment. I try to remember the good times."
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.