When Penguins director of youth hockey Shannon Webster asked me to help coach at an all-girls youth hockey clinic with some of the U.S. women's national team players at PPG Paints Arena before Saturday's game, it was a no-brainer.
I was thrilled for the chance to even be considered to coach alongside them. But when their optional practice got canceled, I thought maybe just a player or two would come.
Instead, the ENTIRE team showed up.
Video: U.S. Women's Team hosts hockey clinic
Wearing their blue Team USA jerseys, they filed down the runway to the delight of the nearly 40 girls from the 10U and 12U age groups who registered for the clinic (and mine).
"I think my favorite part about doing these types of events is seeing the girls light up when we come out on the ice," forward Hannah Brandt said. "Then just getting to interact with them."
Those interactions, that 1-on-1 time - it's so important. Thinking back to my own experiences growing up going to clinics and hockey schools and power skating camps, what stands out the most is how good the instructors were with us - making sure that we had a blast and that we were excited about playing hockey.
That's exactly what these women from Team USA did today. They are absolute pros when it comes to these clinics, as they do them in every city that they go to. They're so, so good with the kids and do an amazing job of being role models for them.
At one point, Team USA forward Kelly Pannek was joking around with 10-year-old Melanie Pietz, who plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite. When I asked Pietz who she looked up to from Team USA, she told me that Pannek was her new role model.
"She's really funny and I saw her play (Friday), she's unbelievable," Pietz said. "So I really hope I can grow up to be kind of like her."
That right there is what it's all about.
"It's really special," Pannek said. "Obviously we play this game because we love it, but to have these days where we're getting to see kids in their environment and just be on their level, it's awesome. I think that's what makes it relatable. We all started as these kids when we were their age, so to hopefully get them to see what they can be someday is pretty cool. To hear that is pretty special as well."
In addition to talking with Pannek, Pietz got a fist bump from Hilary Knight and some words of encouragement from Brandt. Those are interactions she'll remember for the rest of her life.
"I'm very happy," Pietz said with a big smile. "I saw them win gold on TV and I always dreamt about meeting them. I just think it's really, really awesome just to be out here with them."
The clinic concluded with Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson recreating her famous shootout move that won Team USA the gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. Right after, one of the little girls skated up to her and gave her a big hug.
"By the end of the practice or the skate, they've gotten more comfortable and they're super giddy," Brandt said with a smile. "It's just a ton of fun."
I just can't say enough about the job that the U.S. women's national team has done to be visible in our community this week during their joint training camp with Hockey Canada.
They took the ice with girls from EXCEL Hockey Academy; joined girls ages 6-12 for a dek hockey clinic at the Graham Park Dek in Cranberry; headed to Shadyside Academy to practice with the 14U/16U/19U Penguins Elite teams; surprised the North Pittsburgh Wildcats 12U and 14U teams at their skate in Warrendale; and held numerous autograph sessions, meet and greets and photo opportunities throughout the week as well.
It was a lot to do on top of their practices and games, but they did it all with smiles on their faces. They know how important it is for them to be visible for these girls and show them what can be accomplished.
"This community has never had the U.S. women's national team in this area, so for us to be able to interact with local youth hockey players and maybe some new ones - it's just super fun to see girls that are trying hockey for the first time, too," Brandt said. "I think hopefully, it makes a big impact on them and they make a big impact on us."