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Dads' Trip always a highlight for players, fathers

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Matt Cullen's teammates lovingly call the 40-year-old "Dad." But this week, that term is reserved for the players' actual fathers, who are with the Pens on their annual Dads' Trip.

"It's nice not being the oldest guy in this room," Cullen laughed. "I feel like a spring chicken here. This is awesome."

The dads are with their sons for the team's road trip through Colorado and Arizona, following them through every step of the trip - from breakfast, to the bus, to practice, to team meetings, on the plane and watching the games from a suite. It gives them a chance to see what their kids go through on a daily basis at this level.

"From start to finish, getting to meet new dads and spending time with Eric, I look forward to absolutely everything," Frank Fehr said. "It's always a highlight to be treated very well. Never a shortage of food. So it's awesome."

While there's plenty of Dads' Trip veterans - like Fehr, Troy Crosby, Terry Cullen and Phil Kessel Sr. - there's also those fathers of young players who are making the trip for the first time.

Matt Murray, who was in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at this time last year, is particularly excited to have his dad Jim around. He isn't able to make it to a lot of games as it's not an easy trip to Pittsburgh from Thunder Bay, Ontario.

"He hasn't been able to come see me much since I've been playing in the U.S.," Matt said. "So the fact that now he's now able to see what we actually go through on a daily basis, getting to come on the plane and come to practice and seeing the dressing room and everything, it's really cool. He hasn't been able to see much of that."

"I remember the bus trips we used to take when he was younger," Jim said. "This is the first plane trip I've been on with him, so it's something a little bit classier than the old bus to northern Ontario hoping the bus didn't break down. So this is a special time for sure."

That's even more amplified for the European players, whose fathers have an even more difficult time traveling overseas to visit. They mostly have to rely on FaceTime or Skype to keep in touch with their families back home.

But three of them - Gosta Hornqvist, Jari Maatta and German hockey legend Erich Kuhnhackl - were able to make the trek over to join their sons for this road trip.

"I think it's pretty awesome for him to see what it is like to be here," said Olli, who said his dad has only made it to about 10 games since he broke into the NHL. "It's kind of a different world than it is back home. I think it's a way to say thank you, too, for all of the work and stuff he did while I was growing up to be able to play hockey."

It's surreal, because at this point last year, some of the young guys hadn't even been called up to the NHL yet. Now, they are Stanley Cup champions.

"As Matt likes to say, it was surreal," Jim said. "That's one of his favorite words. I don't think it's sunk in for him yet either because he's so young. But when (Evgeni) Malkin charged the pile and knocked him down, it was like 'oh, there's Matt, there's my son.' That was really quite amazing."

That applies to the dads whose sons were traded to Pittsburgh last year as well, like Steve Bonino and Glenn Schultz.

"I wanted to pen a letter to the Vancouver Canucks and thank them for trading him for the Penguins," Steve joked. "But you're sitting there and really, it was surreal. Because we've been doing this since he was 5 years old and it was just kind of the cumulation of everything."

It was endearing to hear the fathers' experiences of watching their sons win the Stanley Cup last season. Both Jim Murray and Glenn Schultz are oftentimes too nervous to stay in their seats during games, both preferring to walk the concourse. But that night, Glenn was able to stay seated and watch everything unfold.

"I was very proud. It was very nerve-racking," Glenn said. "We went to Pittsburgh for Game 5 and I sat for one period and I was pacing around the whole rink the rest of the time. But then we went to San Jose after they won, and that was the first time I ever sat in my seat the whole game. I didn't move. My wife and other son were like, 'you never do that!' And they won and it was just unbelievable. It was surreal being there and going on the ice."

Meanwhile, Steve and his wife Joanne were quite animated as that game went on.

"When 'Horny' got that third goal and it was 3-1, I jumped up and was like, 'We got the Cup! And Joanne was like, 'not yet! We've got 30 seconds to go! Shut up!'" Steve laughed. "And I was like 'okay.' And we were just sitting there and I had to take Joanne off the ceiling fan after they won (laughs).

"To actually get there, you dream of it, you want it but you don't really talk about it. It's just something you hope happens, and it happened. I never had any idea we would get here. Nick did, though. He knew that, I think, growing up. That was his desire and he did it."

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