Children from the Little Penguins "Learn to Play" program got the surprise of a lifetime on Thursday when Sidney Crosby and his teammates joined them on the ice at UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex.
When the season started and the kids picked up their equipment at Dick's Sporting Goods, 100 young players received special "Golden Tickets," enabling them to attend today's event.
"It's pretty fun," Crosby said. "There are different levels. Kids that are on there for the first time, it is fun to see them pick it up and have fun out there. Usually, there's a lot of laughs and people trying to enjoy themselves on the ice."
The Little Penguins program, now in its ninth year, is funded and supported by Crosby, the Penguins Foundation, CCM and Dick's Sporting Goods. It provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment to more than 1,000 local youngsters aged 4-7 each year, which is something families truly appreciate.
"It's a wonderful thing the Penguins organization is doing," said Mike Dwyer, whose daughter Cora and son Neil are enrolled in the program. "The idea that a program would outfit the kids from skates through helmets and sticks is just incredibly generous and really, really neat.
"This is a wonderful way to get kids interested, because I think that equipment hurdle is a pretty big one for people to make, especially if it doesn't pan out."
The kids also get 10 "Learn to Play" hockey sessions at local rinks and the parents could not be any more thankful for the opportunity.
"They're learning plenty, but they're having a ton of fun," Dwyer said. "I've seen kids that couldn't even hold themselves up the first time, but after four sessions, it's just dramatic change. It's really neat."
Kelly Jo Cox is a little further from Pittsburgh in Morgantown, but says this has been worth the trip and is very gracious for the opportunities the "Learn to Play" program has presented.
"We were really excited," Jocox said. "The program is really nice, once you pay the fee you get equipment from head-to-toe which is a nice option. You get ten sessions and get to meet players and do things like this."
Due to the success of the program in Pittsburgh, the NHL & NHLPA are funding similar programs in all 30 NHL markets that will introduce over 22,000 new players to the game during the 2017-18 season.
"It is a great way to introduce kids to hockey and obviously give them the opportunity because it is an expensive sport," Crosby said. "To be able to provide equipment and ice time, and the coaches to be able to provide their time and teach the kids is huge. A lot of kids will probably get introduced to the game because of that and hopefully enjoy that."