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"Mario Sent Me"

by Ashley Vesci / Pittsburgh Penguins

As patrons entered CONSOL Energy Center on Tuesday night, they were greeted by a flapper girl in the elevator who told them the password to enter the speakeasy.

Guests then rode down to the first floor of the building and stepped into a curtained off hallway illuminated by a string of lights. After passing a black 1924 T-model truck and a suited-up Iceburgh, they arrived at a door guarded by a gangster demanding for the password. The magic words were “Mario sent me.”

This was the grand entrance to the Penguins’ second annual “Aces & Ice” Casino Night presented by Trib Total Media. The theme of the event was Roaring Twenties, and over 300 fans had the opportunity to sit and be dealt a couple of hands by their favorite hockey players.

“Everyone planning the event got involved in it and started coming up with ideas,” explained Dave Soltesz, president of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. “The 1924 T-model truck outside. The guy at the door you have to give him the password to get in. Just a lot of fun. The better part of it is that people go to too many stogey events. So come here and have fun and let’s raise a lot of money for the foundation.”

Stepping into the arena was like stepping straight out of a time machine. The bowl was transformed into a casino, and everyone at the event looked incredible. Women were adorned in sequins, feathers, fringe and headbands while the men looked as dapper as could be.

The guests did an amazing job at looking the part, but everyone in attendance could agree that the players stole the show. All of the Penguins wore black and white pinstripe pants, a black button up shirt, white suspenders, fedoras with a white accent and feathers, black and white wing-tipped shoes and to top it all off, they had wallet chains.

“I have to tell you, I love it. The players look great,” David Sedelmeier of the Talent Network said. “It added to the ambience. We needed to change it up from last year, and I think it’s really fun.”

“Aces & Ice” replaced the Penguins’ former charity gala dinner – known as “Skates & Plates,” which they had been doing since 1986 – as the team’s signature event last season. Over those 30 years, the team’s annual gala benefit has raised over $6 million.

All proceeds from the evening benefitted the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the Mario Lemieux Foundation and the Western PA Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

“The goal for the Penguins every time they’re on the ice is very clear, but when it comes to their teaming up tonight and in the past, it’s really an important goal, and it’s a different kind of goal, but it’s a life saving goal,” said Mary Pat Joseph, Executive Director at the Western PA Chapter of Cystic Fibrosis. “And it really is a bottom line goal to help our foundation and continue to add tomorrows for those in our Cystic Fibrosis community. They’ve made such an impact.”

Overall, it was a very relaxing evening, but as the night went on, people became more invested in the games.

Head coach Mike Sullivan roamed from table to table seeing how his players were handling their new jobs, and he received quite the reaction from a fan at Patric Hornqvist’s blackjack table.

The fan happened to be riding a long win streak, and then suddenly, Hornqvist slammed a card down on the table in front of him and the table erupted in a roar of excitement as they realized that the man had finally lost a hand. The man stood up and turned around and joked to Sullivan, “It was nice seeing you, now get the heck out of here!”

Although there were some heated hands, it was all fun and games, and the players were happy to be able to share this evening with their fans.

“It’s a great event,” Hornqvist said. “It’s fun to go out there once in awhile and see the fans and meet them, and have a good time with each other too. I like when you’re at the table and not playing. It’s more fun to deal, and it’s a good way to meet the fans and have some fun with them.”

Some of the tables were taking the games a bit less serious than others. At Marc-Andre Fleury’s blackjack table a professional dealer was by his side helping him count, and at rookie Tom Kuhnhackl’s table, he admitted that he had never even played craps before. Luckily, he had a professional dealer to help him too.

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Kuhnhackl joked.

Both Chris Kunitz and Ian Cole were playing by their own rules at their tables. They would peek at the cards before playing them, so they could wait until they found one that put them over 21 so the fans would win. The crowd was loving it. One of the guests even said, “It’s a miracle!” while laughing hysterically.

“It’s a fun event,” Kunitz said. “It takes everyone out of that comfort element or a stuffy atmosphere, so you just kind of interact with people. It wasn’t too serious or too formal in sitting down I think. It was a great event for us to be able to open up and meet some of the people that like to support the Penguins.”


Some of the guys decided to opt out of dealing and try their luck at a few games instead. Sidney Crosby spent a big chunk of the night seated at Brian Dumoulin’s table, and it was an incredible experience for the fans next to him.

“It’s pretty awesome,” said Roger Vigus, a fan who had the opportunity to play alongside Crosby. “We’re just kind of sitting back. A bunch of guys and girls over there having a good time. It’s kind of relaxing, to be honest. Just sit there, chit chat and have a good time. It’s pretty cool.”

Matt Cullen was also guilty of skipping out of his dealing duties. He was seated at Jeff Zatkoff’s table and apparently wasn’t doing too well because Zatkoff was chirping him.

“You’re a struggle bus right now,” Zatkoff joked.

The Penguins are always happy to be a part of charitable events, and it’s an added bonus when the events allow them to interact with their fans.

“To be able to do that it’s a great cause, but to also be here and meet some of the fans face to face,” Crosby said. “We’re not serving them this time, so I think we’re a lot better at doing this, and it seems to be a good time for everybody. We’re enjoying ourselves here.”

Not only was this Justin Schultz’s first charity event with the team, it was actually his first-ever experience with such an evening.

“I’ve never even heard of teams doing something like this, but it’s awesome,” Schultz said. “I know all the players are having a blast, so it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to doing again.”

Schultz was enjoying himself for a number of reasons.

“I’ve had all ladies, so it’s been awesome,” Schultz joked. “My table’s been the best, I think. I haven’t had one guy sit down here, so it’s good.”

There were many 1920s-themed events happening throughout the arena. There was a film displaying black and white movies all night, and there was a live band performing soft jazz. Servers were walking around handing out boxes of candy cigarettes, and in the far back corner, there was a woman giving tarot card readings.

Fortune tellers became very popular in the twenties because gangsters took their prophecies very seriously. General manager Jim Rutherford caught wind of this, and he decided to try his luck and see what words of wisdom the woman had to offer.

“That was a lot of fun,” Rutherford said. “She’s from right around where I live, so I can go visit her again. That was just a nice experience. It was a little bit different, and she actually touched on some things that are probably possible.”

Rutherford enjoyed the night as much as everyone else, and he was happy to be a part of it.

“Always the key thing is the charities, when you can raise money for any charity,” Rutherford explained. “But the other part about this is that this is a night that the players really have fun with. They’re really relaxed. The fans can get to see them in a relaxed situation because they’re playing a game so they don’t get cornered. So this is a lot of fun.”
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