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Penguins sign five Make-A-Wish stars

Young fans with life-threatening medical conditions get special one-day contracts

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has made blockbuster deals in the past but might have made his most impactful signings Saturday.

The Penguins, with help from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, signed five young hockey fans to special one-day contracts Saturday during a press conference. Wyatt Hunt, Jastin "JJ" Darts, Noah Turner, Jacob Bradley and Tyler Palmer were each given a Penguins jersey before joining Rutherford at the podium and watching practice from Suite 66 at PPG Paints Arena.

"These five young men are inspirations to us all," Rutherford said. "It's an honor for our entire organization to have them become Pittsburgh Penguins for a day."

When the children walked into the media room, they seemed taken aback by the amount of media present, which was similar to the number normally expected after Rutherford makes an offseason acquisition. Wyatt, 8, turned to Jastin, 11, and asked, "What is going on?" before Rutherford made his opening remarks.

"This has been a day the Penguins have really been looking forward to, to strengthen our team," Rutherford said. "We're really happy to have you guys here. I hope you enjoy yourselves. I know you're going to help the team today."

Rutherford then asked which young fan played goalie, with Jastin and Tyler, 14, raising their hands. After Rutherford asked Jastin if he would give goalie Marc-Andre Fleury a few tips, he smiled and replied "Probably the other way around."

The press conference continued that way. Rutherford or a media member would ask a question and at least one of the kids would have a quick quip prepared.

It was easy to tell they were having a great time, and that would continue after the press conference. Select Penguins, including Sidney Crosby and Fleury, remained on the ice to join the children who were well enough to skate.

"For kids to look up to us and to want to be a part of this, I think it's motivating," Crosby said. "I think it's something that puts things in perspective as hockey players. We're all pretty fortunate to do this."

Each kid had a locker in the Penguins locker room with Jacob and Tyler sitting in two stalls between defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Mark Streit. A set of three metal lockers was placed in front of the whiteboard at the front of the room for Wyatt, Jastin and Noah.

All five will attend Pittsburgh's game against the Florida Panthers at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday (1 p.m. ET; TVA Sports, SN, ROOT, FS-F, NHL.TV).

Wyatt's mother, Beth Hunt, said visiting the Penguins helped pick up her son, who has tricuspid atresia, a heart disease present at birth in which the tricuspid heart valve is missing or abnormally developed.

"Everything so far has been above and beyond anything we could ever imagine," Hunt said. "I've never seen him so excited and so happy to be here. … Just the whole [Penguins] organization from top to bottom has been amazing."

Darnell Turner, Noah's father, complimented the Penguins for the way they treated his 15-year-old and the other four children. Noah was diagnosed with pilocytic astrocytoma, a brain tumor that occurs more often in the first 20 years of life, before having chemotherapy for a year and responding well.

"When you reach out to a community of kids from all across the continent … that's a big thing for the [Penguins] organization," Turner said. "I think it shows the pride, their love for kids and, like [Mario] Lemieux preached throughout his whole career, it's the love for the game and the love for the kids."

Four of the five children signed are Pennsylvania residents; Jacob, 17, is the exception. He traveled from Missouri to meet his favorite players, particularly Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

"My dad has been a Pittsburgh Penguins fan ever since Mario Lemieux was playing and just got me hooked before I even knew how to breathe," Jacob said.

Malkin said he was happy to hear the kids idolized him.

"It's very nice," Malkin said. "It's good to see them this morning. They're so excited. They like try to change their tape like me, like Sid. I hope they have fun and I hope we do it again."

Dana Antkowiak, marketing and communications manager for Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, felt fortunate for the chance to work with the Penguins and make the kids' dreams come true.

"At Make-A-Wish, we work with kids who have some significant medical challenges. They have life-threatening medical conditions," Antkowiak said. "We ask them 'If you can go anywhere, if you could have anything, if you could meet anyone, what would that be?' And above anything and everyone, they wanted to meet their heroes, which are the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"This day will just forever live on in their memories. It is just one day, but it's going to have a profound impact on their life going forward."

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