PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby did not practice on Wednesday, at least not in the conventional sense.
Crosby, along with Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, forwards Nick Spaling and Zach Sill, and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, surprised 40 children involved with the Little Penguins by taking the ice during a unique practice that took place after the NHL players had their turn.
Crosby, the Penguins, Dick's Sporting Goods and Reebok fund the Little Penguins, a youth hockey program that provides free head-to-toe equipment to 1,000 young players each year.
The Penguins captain did not participate in Pittsburgh's Wednesday practice because of a maintenance day, Penguins coach Mike Johnston said, but decided to show for the kids.
"It's a great program," Crosby said. "Obviously, there are a lot of volunteers who help out, but it's nice to get a few players out here today and these kids were hopefully enjoying themselves, getting the opportunity to play, like all of us did, at the same age. So it was a nice little time here and hopefully they had fun."
The 40 children, aged 4-7, received golden tickets that gave them the opportunity to attend the Penguins practice before taking the ice to partake in several drills. When the kids filtered into sections 111 to 113, between the faceoff circles at Consol Energy Center, they did not realize they would soon share the ice with some of the NHL's most skilled players.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the Little Penguins, each donning a No. 87 Crosby jersey, participated in a free skate prior to their practice session. About 15 minutes later, the group was called to center ice and told to get into hockey position, down on one knee with their stick blades flat on the surface.
Less than one minute after dropping to a knee, the kids raised their sticks and began tapping them down on the ice as they realized they would not be skating with their coaches alone. Crosby took the ice, with a wide grin, followed by Fleury, Bortuzzo, Spaling and Sill.
Crosby made his rounds, going from each section of the rink, blocked off by pads separating the activities. An ongoing game of tag with Sill took part in the right corner, next to a skating lesson to the north with Bortuzzo instructing the players to skate, then step over a series of sticks, and two sections at mid-ice with Spaling aiding the children in games of putting that involved using the butt-end of their sticks to collide rings with small tires.
"It's fun," Crosby said. "We've all been there, growing up and enjoying the game. The demand on that financially is there too. So the fact that we're able to give back and help kids who might not typically play, just to give them the opportunity. Whether they love it or not, it's an opportunity to explore a little bit and try it out, and that's really the main goal."
At the far end, Crosby and Fleury stood in the middle of a mini-rink with a goal along each board. They played a scrimmage with their group before Fleury took part in a shootout. Fleury, who made a few sprawling saves to deny several children, admitted he might have taken it a bit seriously.
"I have to work on my shootout, so hopefully it got a little bit better today," Fleury said. "I thought I could do all right against these guys to boost my confidence. I don't know, I got lit up a little bit. So I have to keep working on it."
When Crosby was young, he had an opportunity to meet former NHL players Cam Russell and Don McLean and said he remembers his excitement.
"Hopefully the kids felt the same way today with [Fleury] and the guys who came out today," Crosby said. "It was nice of them to join and there were a lot of kids out here, so we needed to get through a lot. I think, especially [Fleury] having his gear on, that was a big hit."
A whistle blew roughly every 15 minutes in the hour-long practice session for the groups to switch to another activity. Crosby said he enjoys taking the ice with the children involved in the program to see them a given a chance to enjoy hockey in the way he was able to in Nova Scotia 20 years ago.
"Basically just to give kids an opportunity who might not typically have the chance to play," Crosby, 27, said. "With gear being so expensive and it not being easy to find gear and ice time and stuff like that, hopefully this gives them a chance, and like I said, it doesn't happen without the volunteers and the people spending the time … but with that, we're able to create a good program here and [give] a lot of kids an opportunity to play."