When the Penguins were growing up, their dads would take them everywhere and anywhere to play hockey.
Now that they're all adult professional athletes, their fathers usually don't get to see that side of their lives anymore. But this week, that will all change as the Penguins players' dads will get the chance to actually experience firsthand what their sons do for a living when they travel with the team for the sixth annual ‘Dads’ Trip.’
The fathers traveled down to sunny Florida on Wednesday afternoon to see their sons take on Tampa Bay (Thursday) and Florida (Saturday) in a two-game road swing.
“It’s great. It’s a heck of a lot of fun,” said Marvin Kunitz. “We get to see what the boys go through on a regular basis. We meet a lot of other fathers. It’s a fantastic trip. I love to be on it.”
Penguins general manager Ray Shero instituted the Dads’ Trip tradition when he arrived in Pittsburgh back in 2006 where every year, the players, coaches and staff get to bring their fathers on a two-game road trip.Joe Vitale
’s father Sam found it difficult to articulate his emotions about the opportunity to travel with his son and see him play for the Penguins.
It’s amazing. We were talking with the dads here and it seems like yesterday we were in the locker rooms putting skates on these little guys. When you think of the percentages for a kid to make it this far, it’s just short of a miracle. It’s all about hard work ethic. You have to give these kids a lot of credit. - Sam Vitale, father of forward Joe Vitale
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Sam said. “You can’t even begin to describe it. It has to be the best organization in the world. It has to be. I’m not one to miss work. I’m a workaholic, but I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
There are a few others making their inaugural Dads’ Trip in addition to Vitale, and the veteran dads are looking forward to getting to know the newbies. Because while they thoroughly enjoy getting a new perspective on their son's lives, sharing stories with the other fathers is one of the highlights of the trip.
“I think just meeting the different players in the different years and the dads, of course,” said Henry Staal of what he looks forward to the most about these trips. He’s a seasoned veteran who’s been through about 13 such trips combined between Jordan, Eric (Carolina) and Marc (NY Rangers).
“I think like anything, it’s the players and the people that you meet that you remember the most. Pittsburgh does a phenomenal job. They treat us like gold. It’s nice to see that end of it, to just go day-to-day with the guys. It gives you a whole different perspective on what your son does.”
However, it doesn’t matter whether a dad is making his first trip or his sixth – intense pride for their successful sons and everything they did to get themselves to this point washes over them each year.
“It’s amazing. We were talking with the dads here and it seems like yesterday we were in the locker rooms putting skates on these little guys,” Sam Vitale said. “When you think of the percentages for a kid to make it this far, it’s just short of a miracle. It’s all about hard work ethic. You have to give these kids a lot of credit.”
But while the dads recognize the drive and commitment that got their children to the NHL, the players can’t thank their fathers enough for all of the sacrifices they made to help develop them into professional athletes.
“My father gets up for work at 3:30 every morning. I remember as a kid, we’d have 11 p.m. practices an hour away from my house in Illinois,” Joe Vitale
said. “For him to get home at midnight and wake up three hours later to go to work, he sacrificed a lot. So this trip is kind of a way to thank him, to have him be a part of this. He’s enjoying it so far. Hopefully, it will be a good trip.”
Added Jordan Staal
, “They did a lot of hard work when they were younger to get us here. I’m sure everyone here in this room wouldn’t be here without their fathers.”
The Penguins tend to perform well in front of their fathers, owning a 7-3 all-time record. The Penguins swept the trip for the second-straight season and the third time overall in 2010-11, defeating the Florida Panthers, 3-2, on Nov. 22, 2010 and following that up with a 1-0 win at Buffalo Nov. 24.
“I know a couple years ago, Ray threatened us,” defenseman Brooks Orpik
joked. “He said if we didn’t win, there’s going to be a Moms’ Trip coming up. So everyone started pressing a little bit harder.”
All jokes aside, the Penguins bring a little something extra to the ice on this trip to make their dads proud.
“I think every time guys have their dads around, you want to play with a little extra heart, a little bit better without putting any more pressure on yourselves,” Orpik continued. “I think everyone has a lot of fun with it.”