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Penguins give three Make-a-Wish Foundation children special experience

Youngsters sign contracts, watch practice, join players on ice, will attend game against Blackhawks

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins have made several important signings helping them win two Stanley Cup championships in the past three seasons.

None was as impactful as the three Pittsburgh made Saturday.

For a third straight season, the Penguins signed young hockey fans from the Make-A-Wish Foundation to special one-day contracts.

Jonathan Abdelmalak from Ontario, Kenneth Abeyta from Colorado and Wyatt Maire from Nebraska had breakfast with Penguins players at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex before signing their contracts during a press conference with Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford on Saturday morning. They then watched practice with their families and joined the players on the ice after.

"It was great to have them on the ice," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "They really enjoyed themselves. It's good to see a lot of guys interacting with them. So, I'm sure they've had some good laughs today." 

The families will attend Pittsburgh's game against the Chicago Blackhawks at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

Kenneth, 14, said he is particularly excited to watch Penguins center Evgeni Malkin. John Abeyta, Kenneth's father, said his son has had more than 14 surgeries for cerebral palsy and bladder atrophy, and that Malkin is the reason Kenneth became a Penguins fan despite living in Colorado.

"He's overcome everything," John said. "He loves, loves the Penguins. He's a diehard. He was telling all the guys in the locker room their stats and where they got traded from, and stuff like that. They were kind of picking his brain. That was just awesome."

During the press conference, the kids were asked how it felt to sign with the Penguins.

"You probably know how I feel because I'm speechless," Jonathan, 12, said before covering his face.

Wyatt, 12, only managed two words but summed up his emotions well.

"I'm excited," he said quietly with a smile.

Dana Antkowiak, senior manager of marketing communications for Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, credited the Penguins for making a difference.

"We have some real super fans here today," Antkowiak said. "They are huge Penguins fans. They are just the sweetest kids and are so excited to be here. I really think it's a highlight for the players as well, as part of their day. They are really making an impact on these kids' lives far greater than they realize."

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan described the experience as humbling.

"It's the least we can do to try to help people that are less fortunate than us, and that are in difficult circumstances," Sullivan said. "I believe we gain more than they do by the experience. When you see these kids come in and how much they look up to our players, I know our players really enjoy their interaction with them. I think it gives us a certain level of perspective on how fortunate we are to do what we do."

Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Penguins

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