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Penguins spread holiday cheer through Children's Hospital

The players made their annual visit to UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh on Monday

by Michelle Crechiolo and Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop

Sophia Gaffey was born with multiple heart defects, one of them being hypoplastic right heart syndrome, which means her right atrium is underdeveloped.

Now 8 years old, Sophia has been in and out of UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh ever since she was a baby. About three weeks ago, Sophia started filling up with fluids that were moving into her lungs, so she has been there ever since as the medical staff works to clear them out.

"She's actually had 24 pounds of fluid in gone in two weeks," said Sophia's mom Tiffany. "So she's got more energy and she can breathe better. We said, those are all things you need to do to play hockey."

That's Sophia's goal, as she is a huge Penguins fan. The team motivates Sophia for her physical therapy sessions, since the hospital shows Penguins games on a big TV screen on the sixth floor. Sophia works hard to able to leave her room to watch from there.

"We work really hard with PT so we can go and watch the games," Tiffany said. "We even have her meds scheduled so that we get unhooked from things until like 8:30 so that we don't even have to take the IV pull with us."

When Sophia heard the players were making their annual visit to the hospital on Monday to chat with children and their families, take photos, sign autographs and distribute gifts, she was hoping that Kris Letang would be stopping by her room.

Luckily enough, Letang was one of the players - along with Jake Guentzel and Jared McCann - who walked through the door into her room that was decorated with numerous Penguins signs that she had made herself, including one just for No. 58.

"One of the volunteers came in and told her who was coming and her face just lit up with relief," Tiffany said. "Like oh, thank goodness."

"She is probably one of the biggest little fans, I'll tell you," Tiffany's mother Joan McClain said. "She loves him."

Video: The Penguins visit Children's Hospital

Letang first came by Sophia's hospital room when she was just two months old on another one of the Penguins' annual hospital visits, which have been a team tradition since the 1970s.

"She was born on October 13, 2011 and we were here for a year," Tiffany said. "She was a baby then. But when he had the stroke and she learned that he also has a special heart and he can do these things (like play hockey), she just kind of attached to him and followed him and she watches him very closely."

Sophia belongs to the Beads of Courage program that the hospital offers, which is a resilience-based intervention program designed to support and strengthen the protective resources in children coping with serious illness.

She requested a Penguins bead because Letang is her favorite player and her dream was to meet him one day. The artist not only made Sophia's bead, but also made a second bead that she could give to Letang one day.

Sophia got that chance back on March 12, where she watched the morning skate and was then invited into the locker room to meet Letang. He presented her with a game stick, a signed jersey, a puck and tickets to watch the game against the Capitals that evening. And after all of that, he spent an hour playing with her.

Right before Sophia was admitted to the hospital for her most recent visit, she had designed a #SOPHIASTRONG shirt, and was hoping to give one to Letang. As fate would have it, they arrived last night - right before Letang happened to stop by.

"I think it's amazing," Tiffany said of today's visit. "I think the Penguins organization is top-notch. I have the utmost respect for absolutely everyone in the organization. The charity and the kindheartedness that they have is above all."

On another floor of the hospital, "Ho ho ho!" was the greeting winger Patric Hornqvist used upon entering every room. He was accompanied by Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Justin Schultz.

Upon visiting 5-month old Maddison, Hornqvist's own paternal instincts kicked in. When posing for pictures, the father of two little girls himself, asked to hold Maddison, who was wearing a pink ribbon on her head. The rest of the players gathered around as Hornqvist rocked the little baby in his arms. 

In another room, the foursome played a little game of peek-a-boo with 4-year-old Charles. He pulled his blanket over his head for a moment of suspense, only to pull it down to reveal a wide grin underneath wild, messy blonde hair.

Each pull elicited an "ooooooh" from the four Penguins players.

"He was giggling, smiling and laughing," Rust said of Charles. "He was having a good time. That's what this day is all about."

The players also met a very outspoken young man named Cameron. He was talking to the players about being strong. When Hornqvist noted that Cameron is strong, too, he responded: "I have super powers!"

"They're definitely a lot tougher than I am," Rust said with a smile.

As the players walked out of the room, 3-year-old Aiden poked his head out of the door to see what was happening. He caught the eye of Hornqvist.

"Do you want to come with us to visit the other rooms?" Hornqvist asked.

Cameron backed away and slowly closed his door. Hornqvist looked at the assembled nurses and staff and said: "I guess not."

The most touching moment came when the Penguins visited with 14-year-old Tanner, who is confined to a wheelchair. Even though he couldn't express himself, Tanner's mother made sure the Penguins knew how special this moment is for him.

"He watches you guys all the time," she said. "You've gotten him through a lot of hard times, a lot of mental therapy."

But for the Penguins, the visit was just as special for them.

"They're always really excited to see us. They have lots of smiles on their faces," Rust said. "We don't take anything for granted. It makes us really happy to do this. It tugs on the heart strings because it's kids and some tough situations. For us it puts a lot of things in perspective. 

"Guys love doing this. We look forward to it every year, hanging out kids and families, and hopefully it brightens their day."

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