At the fifth annual “Pittsburgh Penguins Open Practice” at CONSOL Energy Center on Tuesday, where the team hosted thousands of students from schools in Allegheny County, they had a special shootout that was certainly a crowd-pleaser: the last three players without a goal in the shootout were required to run through the stands and high-five the kids.
Player after player scored until those last three remained: Jussi Jokinen, Chuck Kobasew…and Sidney Crosby.
While Crosby never likes to lose, meeting and greeting his younger fans was a price he was gladly willing to pay for not finding the back of the net. His teammates watched with delight as Crosby climbed into the stands with a big smile on his face, where he remained for a good 20 minutes – going from section to section and taking the time not just to high-five kids, but sign autographs and chat with the kids who adore him.
“It was fun. They were loud,” Crosby smiled in appreciation. “It was cool to hear them all day, they were loud this morning and they were happy to be here. It was fun to have them out here, especially the day after a game like that. A little tired, but they brought a lot of energy in the building this morning. So it was fun to go up and down the stands, meet a few kids and get a few high-fives.”
Crosby paused before getting the last word...
“But still, (the shootout) is going to have to be looked at a little closer to see what happened there,” he laughed.
Even though the goalies appeared to let in some exceptionally easy goals, especially as the crowd surrounding Crosby got thinner and thinner, Marc-Andre Fleury swears there was no plot between him and fellow goalie Jeff Zatkoff to make sure their ultra-competitive captain was one of the last three standing.
Crosby, however, isn’t so sure, and he told Fleury as much on the bench while exchanging his skates for sneakers.
“I said, ‘Don’t tell me it’s what I think it was. It looked like it was pretty rigged,’” Crosby laughed. “(Fleury) said, ‘no, no, it wasn’t rigged. I just didn’t want you to score.’ But then I watched the other guys go and they scored some pretty easy ones. So I think he’s pretty good on shootouts and he seemed to let a few in today that were real questionable.
“I still had three chances to score, but he definitely let some questionable goals in. Definitely under review. That shootout is going to be under review.”
Despite Crosby’s accusations, Fleury was the picture of innocence after practice, claiming he wasn’t the one to blame as he did stop all of Crosby’s attempts. While the oft-mischievious Fleury did admit that he perhaps did try to stop Crosby with everything he had and maybe – just maybe
– he wasn’t as vigilant when the other guys bore down on him, the netminder chalked that up to being tired after a long practice and a game the night before.
“He didn’t score, that’s all I have to say,” Fleury grinned. “I think he’s coming down and I tried my best, you know? Maybe sometimes I need a break and sometimes I don’t move too much (on the other guys) and they scored. But he didn’t score, so it’s his problem, right?
“He always comes down on my side. I gave him a couple breaks. He didn’t take them. And he paid the price.”
Student Tyler Joyce, wearing No. 87’s jersey, agreed that getting to see Sid was one of the coolest moments of his life.
“Yes, yes it was,” he said. “I thought it was pretty cool, how he came and went. He knows there’s a lot of fans out there. The sea of people loving him all throughout the games and stuff like that.”
Crosby’s journey through the crowd was just the cherry on top of a memorable morning for the students. Not only did they get the chance to see an actual Pens practice, but they learned about the importance of education, teamwork and physical well-being as well.
“I just think it kind of hits home with teaching them hard work and dedication and practicing to achieve things they want to achieve,” said Wyland Elementary School teacher Ray Raibel. “The fitness aspect of it as well. Even though these guys are in-season and they played last night, they have to practice again to stay in shape today as well.”
The kids certainly stayed active throughout their time here, as they had seemingly endless amounts of energy from the moment they began entering the building around 10 a.m. They tirelessly cheered, sang, danced to music from popular artists like One Direction and Taylor Swift, with perhaps the biggest hit among the young crowd being Ylvis’ “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say).”
That vivacity didn’t flag as they watched Paul Steigerwald and Phil Bourque emcee practice from the bench, explaining drills, rules and player bios to the crowd. Trivia questions about both the athletes and healthy eating habits were displayed on the video board in an effort to further educate the students about nutrition.
"It is about getting kids active; it’s about having fun," said Pittsburgh Penguins foundation president Dave Soltesz. "And you have to be here to believe it. It’s unbelievable."
Overall, it was an eye-opening experience for the kids – not just seeing their favorite Penguins up close, but seeing how much work it takes to be successful in the games they watch them play on TV.
“Just seeing them practice is my favorite part,” said Claudia, a sixth-grader at Neil Armstrong Middle School who was up against the glass with her friends Haili, Kayla, Alexis, Kira and Riley. “While they’re in the games, this is what they do – they practice to get good.”
Kira agreed and took it one step further, saying, “I really like seeing them actually run drills and everything and showing us how they practice, not just what they practice.”
Overall, everyone involved appreciated the unique atmosphere of the special practice.
“It was nice to hear Crosby talk about the importance of practice and putting forth your best efforts,” said another Wyland Elementary School teacher Lynn Zdniak. “And I think it’s just nice for the kids to have that community feeling, too, that it’s a Pittsburgh thing. We all know it’s a big deal to be down here today. Just to have the Pittsburgh community feeling with their classmates, it’s been very nice."