On Saturday, the Penguins played the Columbus Blue Jackets in their final preseason tune up of the exhibition season at PPG Paints Arena. The game was played in front of a young crowd, as the Penguins distributed 18,000 tickets to the youth in the region in the seventh annual "Free Game for Kids."
The free tickets, all 18,000 of them, were donated to young people in the Pittsburgh region, as well as parents for younger children and chaperones for youth hockey teams and other kids' groups.
"I think this initiative that DICK'S Sporting Goods gets behind is so great to offer free tickets to the kids, to give them an opportunity to come watch our guys play," head coach Mike Sullivan said. "I know our guys were excited to play in front of them. It's a great thrill for us and it's always exciting when you have that many kids in the building at once."
The youthful theme was prevalent throughout the evening, from the South Hills Children's Chorus singing the national anthem, to youth hockey being played on the ice during each intermission.
The Penguins' coaches and broadcasters got into the act as well, adorning a green shoelace lapel pin in honor of DICK'S Sporting Goods Foundation's "Sports Matter" program. DICK'S contributed $25,000 to local youth hockey through the Pittsburgh Penguins foundation as well.
"Hockey is such an important part of all of our lives, and the youth hockey experience we all look back upon with such great memories," Sullivan said.
While the Penguins players and coaches were extremely supportive of the game, it was equally enriching for the fans, who, packing the arena with excitement and enthusiasm, helped make the annual game truly memorable.
The event provided a unique and amazing atmosphere for a preseason game, as the intensity and noise the youth-infused crowd installed is much more resembling of a buzzing regular-season game. It also allowed fans an opportunity to see a Penguins game when they might not have previously got the chance to attend one.
The anticipation began early, when the kids provided a colorful backdrop to warmups, swarming the glass in jerseys representing their respective youth programs.
As the game progressed, the involvement from the young presence at the game didn't wear off, as they cheered each big save from goaltender Matt Murray, while actively participating in the activities the game entertainments operation revealed on the scoreboard.
To have an NHL organization that is so engaging with their youth hockey community was not lost on the numerous coaches that were in attendance.
"This is the best time of the year, the kids love this game," Pittsburgh Predators Peewee coach Scott Lantz said. "It's a great team-bonding event, we're all sitting in a section together. We took a trolley down together and the kids are having a great time. It's phenomenal that the Penguins do this."
The significance of team-bonding is something that Holly Harding, 14, a member of the Westmoreland Eagles alluded to. With the season just beginning, a lot of players are still getting accustomed with each other. To spend a game amongst your teammates, instead of just your family, allows the kids to just be kids.
"It's really fun, everyone is enjoying it," Harding said. "It's good because if you're new on a team then it's a bonding experience for everyone."
There's also the impressionable factor the game provides, with many of the youth teams populating the lower bowl of getting an up-and-close look at the players they idolize, and try to learn from them.
"It's a great opportunity to see the things that we teach them and the things that we're working on, actually happen on the ice right now," John Iaquinta, coach for the North Pittsburgh Wildcats 10u team said. "I think to see the work ethic, how hard the Penguins work to go out and play the game, I think it's a good thing for them to see."
Now in its seventh year, the Free Game for Kids has turned into an event where a lot of the youth hockey population and other youth groups have circled on their calendar.
"This is probably the fifth year we've come to it and they always get excited for it," Jeff Strittmatter, coach of the Steel City Ice Renegades Peewee '06 team said. "It's great, it engages the kids during the season. They always have something to look forward to, when they're not on the ice, with the Pens. The Penguins give a lot back to us so it's a great combination they have with the youth hockey organizations in the area."
The Penguins and DICK'S Puck Pals brought select youth hockey teams onto the ice during the intermissions, with a cross-ice game and a skating obstacle course. One of those participants was Luke Lavrach, a member of the West Allegheny Badgers bantam team.
"It's been a great day," Lavrach said. "Watching the Penguins play is really special. To be here with our team, it's fun because we're family."