The Johnstown Warriors Girls 12U team practices every Thursday at 4:40 p.m. So last Thursday, when their coach Sheri Hudspeth asked the girls if they wanted to play a game instead, it was an easy decision.
They loaded up a bus with their equipment and started making the drive to the North Hills for a rematch with North Pittsburgh, who they had just played that Sunday. But much to the girls' surprise, the bus ended up pulling in front of PPG Paints Arena shortly before the Penguins were set to host the Anaheim Ducks.
"We told the girls that since they all played Little Penguins, they're here to see the big Penguins," Hudspeth said. "They came off the bus just screaming."
Hudspeth had recently learned of the girls' backgrounds through a group chat with the parents. She asked, "Whose daughter played in the Little Penguins program?" and the responses started flying in.
Without Crosby and his program, said Hudspeth, they wouldn't have been able to get enough girls together to field a team.
"Every single girl, all 17 of them, started with Little Penguins. That's why we have a team now," Hudspeth said. "This doesn't happen without him. We are so grateful."
After they arrived at the rink, Hudspeth and assistant coach Quinn Hunter rounded up the girls and took them down to the glass for warmups, where they held up signs that spelled out "CROSBY'S GIRLS" - which is what they call themselves in honor of their Little Penguins beginnings - as they watched their idol get ready for the game.
"They see the number 87 on their jersey in Little Penguins and then they get to see him on TV," said Chris Harbaugh, whose daughter, 10-year-old Megan, plays on the team. "They see that number and see the logo and it just keeps building up a rapport, like I'm associated with something that I can look up to."
The girls absolutely adore Crosby, and wanted to leave some gifts for him to show their appreciation. The team signed a Johnstown Warriors jersey for him, and each girl signed an individual 8x10 photo in their Little Penguins gear.
They also had a plaque made with their team photo and a caption read: "2019-20 INAUGURAL SEASON, CROSBY'S GIRLS: THANK YOU TO SIDNEY CROSBY'S LITTLE PENGUINS LEARN TO PLAY HOCKEY PROGRAM FROM THE JOHNSTOWN WARRIORS 12U TEAM."
It's incredibly special for Crosby to see the impact his program, which has outfitted over 12,000 kids since it began in 2008, has had on youth hockey in the area - particularly girls' hockey.
"I think that's really cool," Crosby said. "That's what it's all about. It doesn't always work out that way, but the fact that they made a team and are all continuing to play is great. My sister Taylor grew up playing hockey, and sometimes growing up, we had girls on our team. The fact that there's enough girls to make a full team tells you that girls' hockey is doing pretty well. It's great to see."
"GIRLS CAN PLAY HOCKEY? I WANT TO DO THIS!"
When Kristi Purdy's daughter Emily was 5 years old, she took her to the 1st Summit Arena at Cambria County War Memorial for figure skating lessons.
When they were getting off the ice one day, Emily spotted girls her age that were getting dressed in hockey equipment ahead of their weekly all-girls Little Penguins session.
"She was like, 'What's that? Girls can do this? I want to do this!'" Kristi said. "I had already kind of heard of the program, so it went from there. We signed up the next time it was available and she did it."
Through the program, which is presented courtesy of Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, DICK'S Sporting Goods, CCM and USA Hockey, kids ages 4-9 in western Pennsylvania receive free head-to-toe hockey equipment and learn the fundamentals of the sport.
The equipment includes skates, a hockey helmet (with a cage), shoulder pads, elbow pads, hockey gloves, hockey pants, shin guards, socks, a No. 87 Little Penguins jersey, stick and equipment bag.
After Emily got geared up for the first time, she took the ice and never looked back.
"She absolutely loved it," Kristi said. "She had a blast with it. She was so excited at the fact that she could skate around and if she fell, it didn't hurt because she was wearing pads. Those types of things that all 5-year-olds worry about (laughs)."
Looking back, Kristi said the Little Penguins program was the only reason that Emily was able to try hockey.
"It's a huge deal getting all of the equipment and stuff for them to be able to play. Otherwise it's so expensive starting out," Kristi said. "Without the program she would not have started. We would not have wanted to invest the money without knowing if she truly wanted to stick with it."
And it wasn't just the free equipment that made it worthwhile. Harbaugh praised the coordination efforts of the Penguins with the participating area rinks to make sure that the kids and their families are offered the chance to experience everything that makes youth hockey so rewarding.
In addition to their free head-to-toe equipment, participants are provided with weekly sessions of age appropriate on-ice instruction and certified coaching in a fun and safe atmosphere. In. Johnstown, they even had the opportunity for all-girls sessions.
"There was no downside to it," Harbaugh said. "There's such a rich history of hockey in Johnstown. They have multiple Little Penguins programs. It was easy to get into. It was well-supported in the area and well-coached. To get her in at such an affordable price point just made sense."
In talking with some of the girls, what they remember the most from Little Penguins experiences is how much fun they had.
"All I know is that it was really fun and it started my love of hockey," said 10-year-old Lexi Feathers, a center for the Warriors.
Lexi and her teammates all ended up sticking with it, and now, they have the opportunity to play alongside other girls.
"It's nice to see a tangible result from the program," Hudspeth said. "These girls played when they were 5 or 6 years old. Now they're 9-12 years old and they have an all-girls team, they all love hockey. Without that program, we wouldn't have been able to have our program. And now, after they see this, hopefully more girls will come and get involved next year. We want to grow the girls' game."
Registration for the winter session of Sidney Crosby's Little Penguins "Learn to Play Hockey" program begins on Nov. 5. More information is available at https://www.nhl.com/penguins/community/learn-to-play.