An average of 146,000 people tune into any given Penguins game, but only one has watched and been inspired to build a wooden bench.
Tanner McKee was working on his senior project for Seneca Valley High School researching sports concussions. During a Penguins game, he heard about HEADS UP Pittsburgh, an initiative of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and UPMC Sports Medicine that offers free baseline testing and concussion education for young athletes.
"Most of my friends play hockey and everybody's had a concussion or two, so I've seen them first-hand," Tanner said. "I know what it does to people."
He decides to combine his love for hockey and passion for woodwork to create a unique fundraiser for HEADS UP Pittsburgh. Over the next month, Tanner turned a white pine tree into a six-foot-long bench. With the help of his boss Bill Schaudt at the Creative Construction Company, Tanner put together the bench and chainsaw-carved two black bear heads on the side.
Once the bench was ready, Tanner and his family sold more than $740 worth of raffle tickets to benefit HEADS UP Pittsburgh.
"It was a lot harder than I ever thought it would be. I never made something like that before," Tanner said. "But once I started selling tickets, everybody wanted 20, 50 dollars worth, because everybody liked it."
The lucky winner of the bench, a co-worker of Tanner's dad, bought only one $2 ticket. All the tickets sold added up to the first ever donation to HEADS UP Pittsburgh specifically for baseline tests, which examine an athlete's memory and problem solving before a sports season. The test results are then used as a standard for future tests if an athlete suffers a possible concussion, helping trainers identify brain injuries.
"We're hoping this will spur some other people into action to understand how serious concussions are," said Patrick Huber, Program Coordinator for UPMC Sports Concussion Program. "They need to take that first step, get that baseline testing done. It makes the management of concussions that much better."
Tanner's donation, which was presented at the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation offices Tuesday, will allow 30 youth athletes to receive such tests. Tanner says both of his younger brothers have been baseline tested.
HEADS UP Pittsburgh has already reached 4,900 local athletes for baseline testing and concussion training, and Tanner's donation will help keep its projects rolling.
"It's just amazing. You have a young, talented gentleman who has crafted something and donated the proceeds of it to the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation," said foundation President Dave Soltesz. "If I put all that work into it, I'd want to keep it."
Tanner is in his last week of high school at Seneca Valley, and he says he would like to keep woodworking on the weekends. Eat your heart out, Ron Swanson. If he ever needs a buyer for his next bench, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation may call. The Foundation employees moved the chair in their reception area for the presentation of Tanner's check, so…
"Now I kind of like the furniture where it is. But there's only one open space," said Soltesz. He asked Tanner, "What do you think?"
"I've never done a penguin before," Tanner said. "But I don't see why not. I could try."