CRANBERRY, Pa. -- A group of youth hockey players took the ice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Thursday knowing they were skating where the Pittsburgh Penguins practiced an hour earlier.
What they didn't know was several of the Penguins, including captain Sidney Crosby, were heading back out to join them for a private practice session.
The 100 players were part of Crosby's Little Penguins program, now in its ninth year, which provides free head-to-toe equipment to more than 1,000 local children ages 4-7 each year. The kids also participate in 10 "Learn to Play" hockey sessions at local rinks.
Crosby, the Penguins foundation, CCM and Dick's Sporting Goods fund the Little Penguins.
Because of the program's success in Pittsburgh, the NHL and NHLPA are funding similar programs in the remaining 29 NHL markets, which aim to introduce more than 22,000 new children to hockey during the 2017-18 season.
Crosby said he is glad to see other markets implement similar initiatives.
"It's great," Crosby said. "It's a great way to introduce kids to hockey and, obviously, it's an expensive sport. To be able to buy equipment and ice time, and the coaches to be able to provide their time and teach the kids, that's huge. A lot of kids are probably interested in the game because of that and hopefully enjoy it."
The 100 kids on the ice won the chance to skate with the Penguins when they picked up their equipment this year from Dick's Sporting Goods. They each received "Golden Tickets," which allowed them to attend the event in Cranberry.
Forwards Carl Hagelin, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Carter Rowney, and defensemen Ian Cole and Steve Oleksy, lent Crosby a hand.
Crosby surprises a chosen group of 100 kids by joining them during their session each year, which inevitably leads to him sharing a few laughs with his teammates. Thursday was no different.
The rink was split into six zones catering to different skills. Arguably the most prominent was in the upper-left corner, where the kids played what would be best described as ice soccer. They slid around the ice while fighting to slap a soccer ball into one of two hockey nets. That led to more than a few tumbling, which seemed to amuse them and the Penguins.
Some of the remaining zones had the kids play tag with various Penguins, skate through tires and slide under a hockey stick placed atop two high cones. The Penguins spent about an hour teaching the kids.
"It's pretty fun," Crosby said. "There are kind of different levels of kids on there for the first time. It's really fun to see them kind of pick it up and have fun out there, so there are usually a lot of laughs and just everyone trying to enjoy themselves on the ice."