CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby surprised 100 members of the Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey program by joining them on the ice following practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. The kids, ages 4-7, were randomly selected from the 1,000 who take part in the program, which annually provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment to children across the region.
When they received their equipment in December, 100 were given "Golden Tickets" inviting them to practice Friday. For two months, they knew they'd take the ice for a clinic after the Penguins skated, but weren't aware Crosby, who created and helps fund the program, would join them.
"It's fun," Crosby said. "They have so much energy. Even on a day like this, you're done with practice and you're a little tired, but when you get out there you seem to get a bit of a jolt of energy when you're out there with them. They're having a ton of fun.
"The hardest part is just trying to get them to go in line and figure out what they're doing out there. Usually there are a few stragglers, but it's pretty fun to be out there. … You just kind of herd them into the corner and hope they stay there. Try not to lose anybody."
The Little Penguins, all wearing No. 87 with "Crosby" on the back, skated for about 20 minutes before Crosby emerged from Pittsburgh's locker room and stepped on the ice at 12:50 p.m. ET. Several children immediately stumbled, including one directly in front of Crosby, who smiled, bent over and patted the young boy on the back, before the youngster ultimately fell again a few seconds later.
Video: 100 kids were invited to watch practice
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury joined them shortly after. And a child fell at his feet too.
Brian and Julie Gordon of Evans City, Pa., watched their son Trent, 7, skate with some of the best hockey players in the world Friday. Julie said Trent was very excited to add another NHL jersey to his collection, as well as an autograph, despite Brian saying Trent didn't have a clear idea what was occurring.
"I don't think our little guy knows exactly what's happening," Brian Gordon said. "I don't think he knows that Sidney Crosby's one of the best players on the planet. I think he's just happy. He's super excited to be out here. In a few years, I think he'll understand what he did and what he got the opportunity to do."
One particular child attempted to hurdle a pad placed horizontally across the center ice circle. He did not succeed and slipped forward onto his stomach, with Crosby rushing over to help him to his feet. The boy ignored the help and got to his skates on his own. Crosby grinned and watched as the youngster then belly-flopped onto the heart of the Penguins logo and slithered his way under a hockey stick placed on top of two cones.
The child knocked the stick off once. Crosby replaced it. He knocked it off twice. Crosby replaced it again. He knocked it off a third time. Crosby shrugged and laughed before the boy got up, raised his arms and gave Crosby a triumphant high-five.
That's one of many instances in which the kids' enthusiasm for hockey was obvious. It was also obvious how much their fun impacted their NHL counterparts, including Carl Hagelin, Patric Hornqvist, Jeff Zatkoff, Brian Dumoulin and Derrick Pouliot.
Fleury, who customarily wears a grin, never had one leave his face Friday afternoon. Crosby scanned each end of the rink, speaking with the kids, some falling and others impressing with quality talent for their age.
Brooke Detling, 6, of Wheeling, W.Va., was one of a number of girls who took part in the hour-long session. Her parents, Andy and Dina Cooney, said it was fun to watch the kids slip and slide around the rink because it reminded them of their daughter's progress.
Dina Cooney said Crosby's commitment to the community speaks to his character.
"I think it just shows how grounded [Crosby] is and how cool it is," she said. "He's come so far himself from such a young age and he gives the other kids the opportunity in a rural area, because that's where we come from. We're not in the city. We have that opportunity for them to follow in his footsteps and have the same experiences he did. That's really cool."
Crosby said he always has wanted to give back to the community.
"The biggest thing is just giving them the opportunity to play," Crosby said. "It's not easy with the time commitment from parents to get them to the rink, the price of hockey equipment and all that stuff. The volunteers to coach, all that, it takes a lot, so just to be able to get them out there and introduce them to game, meet some other kids at the same time. There's a lot besides just the hockey aspect that hopefully they get out of it."
The program has grown over the years, and Crosby enjoys being a catalyst for the growth of hockey in the Pittsburgh community.
"The cool thing has been to see the numbers grow and see the interest grow," Crosby said. "The registration, I think it was 500 at the start. It's almost 1,000 now, or close to there. Just to see that the kids have gotten into it and they've enjoyed the experience. Year after year, parents and kids come up and say they've been involved in the program and have had a great time with it. That's the best thing you can hear."