Friday was not a game day for the Penguins at Mellon Arena, but the presence of 7,000 enthusiastic children from 42 Allegheny County schools sure made the day feel like more than just a practice as the Penguins held their second annual “Open Practice with the Penguins,” sponsored by Highmark Healthy High 5.
Each school in Allegheny County was invited to bring 250 students each in grades 1-8 to watch the Penguins’ 11 a.m. practice session as the Penguins and Highmark combined to provide the kids with both a fun and an educational experience at Mellon Arena.
“The fact that the Penguins open their doors and bring everybody down here is just a great experience for these kids,” said Jesse Rosenthal, a teacher at Propel-East Charter School. “The kids are banging on the glass and taking pictures.”
“This is a real good chance for kids to be exposed to something they don’t normally get to see,” said Sheila Muller, a teacher at Miller African Centered Academy. “These kids are having a great time being this close to (the players).
“We want them to understand how the team works hard and realize the whole teamwork philosophy. Having the kids understand teamwork is probably the most important theme of the day.”
Fun was also a huge theme of the day as by the time teachers and students filled a majority of the arena’s lower bowl by roughly 10:30 a.m. it was hard to tell that practice was still a half-hour away. From signs such as “Malkin Me Crazy 71” to the classroom in section C22 attempting to get the wave going around the rink, fans were thoroughly enjoying the morning’s festivities.
“Our principal came in our room and told us we were going to go to practice,” said Justin, an 8th-grader at St. Gabriel’s. “It’s pretty cool. I was excited to (come).”
Justin wasn’t the only fan ready to go as the scoreboard helped further rev up the crowd with a friendly competition between the grade levels. Each respective grade was instructed to yell as messages were displayed on the Jumbotron such as “4th Grade Scream, I Can’t Hear You” and “6th Grade Make More Noise Than Everyone.”
“They brought signs,” said Judy Lamorte, a bus driver from the Plum School District. “They were all dressed up. They were signing on the bus and having a great time.”
Penguins President David Morehouse said the players, who were coming off a 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche barely 12 hours earlier, felt energized hearing all the screaming from inside the locker room.
“For the players, just seeing them in the locker room before they came out, you could hear the kids,” Morehouse said. “I think it is great for them to see how enthusiastic young kids are.
“It makes (practice) more fun for them. It is a good way for us to have young fans come in and see something most people don’t get to see.”
Finally, after watching scoreboard features of equipment manager Dana Heinze teaching them how to sharpen skates and FSN Pittsburgh’s Dan Potash offering a behind-the-scenes look at Mellon Arena, the lights were turned off at 10:49 a.m. as the Penguins’ pre-game videos were shown on the screen.
“I thought it was great how we did the pre-game (videos),” captain Sidney Crosby
said. “It gave them a feel like it was a game.”
That feeling only got better as chants of “Let’s Go Pens, Let’s Go Pens” greeted the arrival of their hockey heroes. Upon Sidney Crosby
’s arrival a few minutes later the place had an almost rock-concert feel as shouts of “Crosby, Crosby, Crosby” echoed through the building.
“They were almost as loud as a full crowd,” Jordan Staal
said. “They can really scream. It was fun.”
Crosby then took the mic from the day’s emcees, FSN Pittsburgh play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald and Phil Bourque, the color analyst for radio broadcasts on the Penguins’ flagship station, 105.9 The X, and thanked the students for attending and told them he “hopes they have fun.”
At the beginning of each drill head coach Dan Bylsma explained the premise behind what the players were doing and how it was incorporated into a game situation. It was a great way for the team’s young fan base to see how hard the players work on a daily basis.
“For the kids, it is a great lesson to see how hard a championship team works to be good,” Morehouse said. “It shows them if you want to be good at something you really have to work hard.
“We know from our research that our fans tend to be younger than other sports. If you look around, almost all of these kids have Penguins stuff (on). Young kids are attracted to our young team. They are very enthusiastic about us.”
Fans were especially enthusiastic when Bylsma brought the team together before the conclusion of practice and told them the loser of the shootout competition had to throw on a pair of gym shoes, run through the crowd and exchange high-fives with the students.
While the students were giddy at the prospect of slapping hands with anybody wearing a Penguins sweater, their ultimate dream almost became a reality when the contest came down to a one-on-one battle between defenseman Jay McKee and Crosby.
“I have to score, that’s what I was thinking,” Crosby said after. “I don’t ever want to lose in the shootout. It was great to have the kids here but I didn’t want to get trampled.”
Fans were on their feet with excitement when Crosby’s first shot sailed over the net wide of Marc-Andre Fleury
, prompting cheers from the crowd. Crosby had no problem with his adoring fans rooting against him.
“It felt like a road game at the end so that was a good test,” he said.
Crosby proceeded to throw a shot under the legs of Fleury on his next shot while Johnson closed his legs to deny McKee at the other end, forcing the defender to throw his shoes on and take a couple laps through the aisles.
“The kids were crazy,” McKee said. “I don’t mind losing shootouts like that. I’d prefer that over (growing) a mustache any day.
“I don’t know if Sid would have made it through that one. I really don’t mind losing that one.”
Crosby found it entertaining watching McKee make his rounds through the crowd.
“I didn’t think it was going to be as crazy as it was when I saw him up there,” Crosby said. “I thought maybe he was going to be downstairs slapping hands, but that wasn’t the case.”
Although the students weren’t treated to a close encounter with Crosby, the day was a huge success for everybody involved.
“It seemed like a lot of them were really excited to be here and that is a great sign for hockey in Pittsburgh,” Craig Adams
said. “Whether it’s hockey or other sports I’m sure a lot of them dream about one day becoming a pro. It’s good to let them know you can do both.”
“I think it is a tremendous opportunity to learn something from the Pittsburgh Penguins regarding self-esteem,” said Neal Martin, a 6th-grade teacher in the Montour School District. “I’m sure they will remember this more than any average day at school.”
As they left the arena all students were given an activity book sponsored by Highmark Healthy High 5 to supplement all the geographical fun facts posted on the scoreboard during practice. Teachers said both the book and the information supplied during practice helped make Friday’s event a well-rounded experience for the children.
“Hockey is an international game more than any other sport so the fact that the Penguins incorporated the geography about the players is a great idea,” Rosenthal said. “I think it is a good extension to use in the classroom to enhance what they learned here.”