Members of Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins Learn to Play program that were invited to watch team practice on Wednesday morning were bummed when they learned that the captain had a maintenance day and wouldn’t be taking the ice.
Little did they know he was planning to surprise them during a skate of their own later that afternoon.
“She kept looking for him and looking for him,” said Todd Bucci of his 5-year-old daughter Gianna. “I said 'maybe he’ll come out later. You never know.' Sure enough, he did. So she’s pretty excited.”
Crosby and teammates Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Spaling, Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sill joined the group of 36 children for a session on the CONSOL Energy Center ice.
“I don’t think they knew we were coming,” smiled Fleury, who – much to the delight of the tiny skaters – came out in full goalie equipment while the other guys wore Penguins track suits. “I think it’s a great thing ‘Sid’ does with his partners, and for us, it’s fun to be with him and have some fun with the kids.”
“It’s a great program,” Crosby said. “Obviously there’s a ton of volunteers that help out, but it’s nice to get a few players out here today. There were a lot of kids out here, so we needed to get to a lot and I think especially with ‘Flower’ having all his gear on, I thought that was a big hit.
“These kids are hopefully enjoying themselves having the opportunity to play like all of us did at the same age. It was a nice little time here and hopefully they had fun.”
A combined effort between Crosby, Reebok, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation provided free head-to-toe equipment to over 1,000 children between the ages of 4-8 this year.
Now in its seventh season, the program has introduced over 6,200 players to the sport since its inception in 2008-09 and has played an absolutely crucial role in the growth of youth hockey, especially in the 10-and-under age group, in western Pennsylvania.
Christy Klasnick has experienced that growth firsthand, as 4-year-old Tucker is her third son to participate in Little Penguins. She and her husband think it’s tremendous what Crosby and the program have done for families like theirs, considering how expensive it would be to outfit three young growing boys in hockey equipment – not to mention the ice bills and other costs that would come along with playing for local teams.
“Tucker has two older brothers that play and his dad coaches, so I think he just thinks that’s the natural thing to do,” Christy said. “He loves the game. My sons were in the inaugural program when it first started years ago, so it’s a great opportunity for kids to participate and get experience with hockey without the financial commitment to know whether or not you really want to go forward with it. But it’s so fun I think most kids continue on.”
When this year’s participants went to pick up their full sets of Reebok SC87 equipment back in January – including skates, stick, helmet, gloves, pants, shoulder pads, shin pads and elbow pads – randomly selected children discovered “Golden Tickets” in their equipment bag.
It read, “This is your Golden Ticket to watch Penguins Practice and participate in a special on-ice clinic at CONSOL Energy Center.” They had no idea they were going to have the chance to skate alongside their idol himself.
“It’s awesome,” Bucci said. “That’s all Gianna talked about this morning, was coming down here and getting an opportunity to come out and skate. Then of course to see (Crosby), you could just see it in her eyes that she’s really excited.
“Her third-favorite is Iceburgh, her second-favorite is Malkin and her first is Sidney. So it’s pretty awesome.”
The kids aren’t just given brand-new equipment through the program – they’re given an opportunity to learn the sport. The players receive weekly lessons at 24 participating rinks, including four special programs for girls only. Volunteers at each venue provide on-ice teaching.
“It’s to give kids that might not typically have the chance to play that opportunity,” Crosby said. “With equipment being so expensive and not being easy to find gear and ice time and stuff like that, hopefully this gives them a chance. It doesn’t happen without the volunteers and the people spending the time do that. With that, we’re able to create a good program here and give a lot of kids the opportunity to play.”
For the lucky skaters at CONSOL Energy Center today, lessons were taught by Crosby himself.
“(This program) is unbelievable,” said Ryan Wilson, whose 7-year-old son Braxton is trying hockey for the first time this year. “It’s the greatest thing. I hope more kids get the same opportunity he did. I wish I had the same experience growing up that he did.
“He loves it. Now he wants to go to all the games. Sidney this, Sidney this, Sidney this – it’s all we hear about all day long. And then to see him and Fleury out here, to get to run around with them, it’s the greatest.”
Crosby understands how exciting it is for these kids to have the chance to skate with him, as he remembers what it was like when then-pro players took the time to skate with him back before he was Sidney Crosby, NHL superstar.
“Cam Russell, who was a local hockey player back in Cole Harbour, I remember that he showed up one time when I was back home,” Crosby recalled. “Don McLean was another guy as well, he played professionally back home. I remember how excited I got having the opportunity to see those guys up close, so hopefully those kids felt the same way today with ‘Flower’ and all the guys that came out.”
Maybe the next Sidney Crosby – or Marc-Andre Fleury – was among this group today.
“I think if they can smile a bit, have some fun playing hockey, that’s the main thing why we’re here,” Fleury said before adding with a smile, “Make them enjoy the game and hopefully, they can keep playing and steal my job someday."