CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Sidney Crosby has a tradition of surprising a group of youth hockey players by joining them for a skate after a practice each season.
The 2020 edition was expected to take place Wednesday. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins cancelled practice, scheduled for noon, following a 2-1 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday.
That didn't keep Crosby and four of his teammates away from UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. They showed up to spend about 45 minutes skating with 100 young fans who were part of the Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey program.
"It's fun," Crosby said. "The kids have great energy. I have some great memories, as a kid, being at hockey camps and having good experiences that way. Just to be out here and see the smiles, the energy that they bring, that's what it's all about."
Each young player wore a Little Penguins jersey with No. 87 on the back and "Crosby" on the nameplate.
"I don't think that ever gets old," Crosby said. "It's pretty unique. It's funny how you kind of relate a player to a number. Obviously, you have a name and the way they play, but jersey numbers are always something that you link to any athlete.
"A lot of times, looking back at some of the players I liked, how I wanted to wear their numbers and how cool that was if I was able to get that number that year. It's funny how you link that."
Fifty young players were assigned to each of the two rinks, with Crosby, Pittsburgh's No. 1 center, and forward Anthony Angello joining one group and forwards Brandon Tanev, Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino skating with the other. The five players swapped midway through the session.
The rinks were split into several sections, each focusing on a different drill. At the far end, Crosby watched as several kids attempted to stickhandle past three dummies before shooting into an open net. In an opposite corner, Angello helped officiate a 3-on-3 game.
The program, now in its 12th season, provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment to 1,500 kids aged 4-9 each year. The Penguins said more than 13,000 fans have been introduced to hockey through the program.
"I think it's a community. It's families and volunteers," Crosby said. "I think just trying to introduce the game and it's something that, obviously, I'm passionate about. I have been. To see all the coaches and families here at the rink brings back some old memories. It was just fun to see the kids out here having a good time."
The 100 children who participated Wednesday received Golden Tickets when they picked up their gear. The tickets served as an invitation to the event but did not disclose that Crosby would join them.
Crosby was the last of the five Penguins to leave the ice. After the session ended, he took the time to take a picture with any of the young players who asked before signing autographs.
Pittsburgh's captain, in his 15th NHL season, said he has gained more perspective as he's matured.
"I think you tend to reflect a little bit more," the 32-year-old said. "You think back to your own childhood memories. You see your teammates transform from the younger days to fathers. It's important to be role models for their kids, for other kids.
"To see it with guys you've kind of grown up with, [Evgeni Malkin] and [Kris Letang], especially. To see them as dads and see them share those kinds of things, I think it's pretty unique. I think it's stuff we can all relate to."
When he was younger, Crosby attended camps led by NHL defensemen Cam Russell and Al MacInnis, and forwards Glen Murray and Brad Richards. His goal is to provide these kids with similar long-lasting memories.
"We had a lot of guys that we could look up to," Crosby said. "I think as a kid, being able to share the ice with them, I'll always remember those moments. It's a unique opportunity. Obviously, we have other guys who came out here today, coaches and that kind of thing. So you want to make sure they're having fun and having a good experience."
Photo Courtesy: Pittsburgh Penguins