There are still 17 days until Santa Claus makes his list, checks it twice and delivers presents to good boys and girls everywhere, but on Tuesday afternoon the Pittsburgh Penguins put on their best Kris Kringle impersonation by donning Santa hats and passing out presents to kids at Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville.
The day began in the Lemieux Sibling Center on the hospital’s first floor, where the team signed a 2009 Stanley Cup champion logo before the players moved upstairs to throw on their jerseys and grab the carts full of presents they were to pass out to the children. Befitting the giving nature of a team filled with first-class individuals, the presents were bought from a team collection raised by the players on their own account.
“Tis the season so we are in the Christmas spirit here,” Sidney Crosby
said. “I am sure all of the kids here are thinking about Christmas so we are bringing our Christmas cheer.”
Once all the players were present and accounted for it was time to play the part of St. Nick. Crosby led one of the first groups down the hall, accompanied by teammates Jay McKee, Chris Kunitz
, Kris Letang
and Ruslan Fedotenko.
The first stop for the group was the crib of 14-month-old Kaiden, an infant stricken with a very rare form of brain cancer. As the players entered the room, Kaiden’s father, Nadir, expressed delighted shock at seeing members of the team that he said he watched less than 24 hours earlier.
“This is great that you do these rounds,” Nadir said. “This is awesome.”
Crosby and Co. did more than simply make a round. They took the time to ask questions about Kaiden’s condition and made sure the lights from the cameras in the room did not disturb him. Then they each signed a yellow school bus before shaking the hands of Kaiden’s parents and moving on to their next stop.
“I think it is fantastic that they take time out of their busy schedules to visit and just say hello,” Nadir said. “He is 14 months and doesn’t appreciate it but we certainly do having lived in the hospital the past month. It means a lot to us.”
As much as visits such as these mean to the patients and families, their hockey heroes get just as much enjoyment from getting to meet and speak with them to help divert their attention from the illnesses and surgeries they are forced to overcome.
“One of the most special things is talking to the families and hoping everybody gets better,” Brent Johnson
said. “Seeing a smile on their face is probably one of the best things. When you make a kid smile it brightens our day.”
Johnson, along with fellow netminder Marc-Andre Fleury
, had one of the tougher trips of the day to make – a voyage through the Intensive Care Unit.
“It’s a little bit different in there,” Johnson said. “When you go in there and you see a kid light up, it’s fantastic. We both had a great time.”
Speaking of having a great time, it would probably be tough to find somebody who had more fun passing out the presents than Bill Guerin, who walked around with Pascal Dupuis
, Jordan Staal
and Tyler Kennedy
When Guerin entered the room of a 5-year-old patient named Cadence, who was making a necklace, he did more than simply give her a toy pink laptop. Instead Guerin gave a rendition of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” that would have made Gene Autry proud.
Following his award-winning performance Guerin asked Cadence, “Are you making me a necklace? That’s Billy. B-I-L-L-Y.” As the remainder of the group made their way from Cadence’s bedside, Guerin spent a couple extra seconds helping her string the necklace before the two pounded fists and Guerin joined up with the rest of his party.
The players were making their way down the hall, led by Dupuis pushing the cart full of toys, when they ran into a 13-day-old child. Guerin, a father of four, stopped to pay a visit.
“She’s a peanut,” he said. “She is so adorable.”
After the group continued on their way, Staal noticed a young boy named Steven who wasn’t on the list. Staal asked, “You want a visitor?”
Within seconds everyone was surrounding the television watching Steven’s favorite cartoon, “SpongeBob.”
Guerin told Steven his favorite character is Plankton because “he is a funny guy.”
A star-studded group featuring Evgeni Malkin
, Sergei Gonchar and Martin Skoula certainly brightened the day for the many children they visited. One of their first stops was a 7-year-old fan named Kyle who just got out from surgery.
As he gave Kyle a box of Legos, Gonchar made him laugh when he told him, “It’s a good thing you didn’t see our game last night.”
“Just seeing these guys come out and everything is really something great that they do,” Kyle’s mother, Dottie, said. “They have so many other things they could be doing and they take time out for the kids. The parents appreciate it.”
Malkin was happy to hear what visits such as these mean to the families because he says they mean just as much to the players.
“This is a big deal to be able to come and make these kids happy,” Malkin said. “It makes us feel good too. This can be tough to do but it’s worth it.”
Once all the presents were delivered the team headed to Austin’s Playoom, a common area where the children gather to play games, for more intimate interaction with the patients. The room is named after Austin Lemieux, the son of Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.
Crosby, who has become close to Austin while living at the Lemieux household, took the time to take a tour of the room.
“This is great,” said Crosby to one of the workers.
One of the first children to make his way into the room was Steven, who finished watching his “SpongeBob” show.
“How was the rest of ‘SpongeBob?’ Guerin asked before inviting Steven to join Staal in racing Mike Rupp to a puzzle-building contest.
“Jordan needs some help,” Guerin said.
While Steven gave assistance to Staal, Malkin found a Nintendo Wii in the back room and challenged Kasey, 12, to a game of bowling.
Malkin got out to a fast start with a strike and a spare in his first two frames after Kasey showed him how to use the remote.
Kasey’s mother, Mitzi, couldn’t contain her excitement as she watched her son take on the Penguins superstar.
“This just made his day,” Mitzi said. “I don’t know if they know what visits like this mean to the kids. These are more special than some of the other visits they get.”
As Mitzi spoke, Kasey and Malkin kept getting more and more into the game a couple feet away.
“That’s going to be tough,” Malkin told Kasey after Miller was looking at a one-two split following his first roll.
In the end Malkin prevailed, 170-113. On a day like this, however, the score hardly mattered as Kasey had one of the most thrilling moments of his young life.
“It was cool,” Kasey said. “It was a lot of fun bowling (with Malkin).”
And with that another rewarding trip to Children’s Hospital was complete. Like it is every time the Penguins pay a visit, this trip helped show the team the difference they make to young children in the community and it helped put life into the proper perspective as the “most wonderful time of the year” swings into full force.
“It is always something that puts things into perspective,” Crosby said. “We always talk about adversity and things like that when we talk about hockey.
“When you see real-life situations where kids are sick or really facing a true adversity, you see their bravery and how courageous they are to deal with it. I think it puts things into perspective for us as players.”