When Evgeni Malkin heard that he was the favorite player of Hayden Hamilton, the Laurel Junior Senior High School football player who suffered severe spine injuries in a game on Aug. 31, he wanted to surprise him with a visit.
So after practice on Tuesday in Cranberry, Malkin and Penguins assistant coach Sergei Gonchar drove to the Children's Home and Lemieux Family Center in Pittsburgh, where Hayden has been staying in the Children's Hospital Rehabilitation Unit.
Malkin and Gonchar chatted with Hayden, who was completely stunned by their arrival, for a while before the Penguins center presented the 15-year-old sophomore with a signed jersey and stick.
"He had no idea," said Hayden's grandmother, Dixie Hamilton. "It was so nice of them. He didn't even know what to say. He couldn't even say anything (laughs)."
Video: Evgeni Malkin Visits Injured High School Athlete
Afterward, Hayden's father Chad said his son, who has received an outpouring of support from the community, described the visit as "pretty cool."
"I just knew he was going to be excited. It's his favorite player," Chad said. "It's just so nice of him to come down here, him and Sergei both, to take the time to come down here and see him.
"It just keeps his spirits up. A lot of times, he gets thinking a lot and he gets a little bit emotional, so when good things like this happen, it's nice. He gets a break from thinking too much."
As soon as Malkin entered the room, he exclaimed to Hayden, "You look great! You look strong." He and Gonchar asked how the injury occurred and how the rehabilitation process was going, with Gonchar telling him it would be important to stay patient.
Hayden later told Malkin he played linebacker and running back in football, who replied, "You run fast? You should play hockey." As it turns out, hockey was the first sport Hayden played, and as he said to Malkin, it's the one he enjoys watching the most.
"He started playing for the Little Penguins Learn to Play Program," Chad said. "Geno was my favorite player, so when he was little, he just followed along. We even named our dog after Geno."
Hayden, who was hurt on what he called a football play gone wrong, underwent surgery after the injury occurred to stabilize the vertebrae in his neck and decompress his spinal cord in order to regain as much feeling and movement as possible.
He has been rehabbing for a couple of weeks now, and right now, a lot of it is centered around working on his motor skills with his hands and arms. Chad said a lot of the focus is also on Hayden being upright more, because when he's in bed his blood pressure drops, so they're trying to keep that and his heart rate up.
While he still has a long road ahead, Hayden has been making progress and hopes to be discharged by mid-November. When he's ready, Malkin is looking forward to seeing him at a Penguins game. In the meantime, his message to Hayden was to stay strong.
"It's a huge injury and I play sports, too, so I understand how important it is when guys support you," Malkin said. "It's very important for your friends to be here to support you. It's fun to be here and just talk, we talked for like five, 10 minutes. I hope his mood is a little bit up and he's better tomorrow and a little bit better every day. Step by step, he feels better, I hope. It's a huge injury, it's slow (recovery), but he will be fine."