The Penguins players put on Santa hats and delivered Christmas presents – which included custom-made Build-A-Bears and stuffed penguins – to patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC after practice on Thursday afternoon.
A team tradition since the 1970s, Penguins players make an annual visit to the hospital during the holidays where they chat with the children and their families, take photos, sign autographs and distribute gifts. The Penguins players and coaches donated the funds for purchasing all the toys that the children received.
The players split up into groups so that they could cover as many floors as possible (Zach Sill's group visited over 80 rooms!) After posing for a picture with Brandon Sutter, Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie, Simon Despres and Craig Adams, teenage patient Emily had to ask –
“Mind if I take a Snapchat?”
While the guys obliged, of course, Emily first had to explain what exactly Snapchat is to everyone. Needless to say, none of them have it.
After Emily briefed the guys, Sutter asked, “Well, what should we do?," and the group tossed a few ideas around. Sutter said they could just smile or jump, while Despres suggested the Harlem Shake. Eventually, they agreed that the guys should do ‘mean’ faces (complete with sound effects, as the players growled for the camera as the picture was being taken), while Emily made a 'duck face.'
Once the picture was 'snapped' and the players got ready to move onto the next room, Emily thanked everyone for stopping by and told them how much it was appreciated, saying, “This really does make you feel better.”
Unfortunately for Emily, this isn’t the first time she has received a visit from players at the hospital, as former Penguins Ben Lovejoy, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen stopped by her room and spent time by her bedside when she was getting treatment a couple of years ago.
Her mother Jamie got emotional when talking about how much these visits mean to them, especially when they’re stuck in the hospital during Christmas time.
“When you have an experience like this, and you have the opportunity to get a visit from a team that you absolutely love and follow, it makes it a lot easier to cope with when you’re in the hospital during the holiday season,” Jamie said. “It’s really special that the team does that for patients in the hospital and their families.
“I’m going to cry, because it really is a beautiful experience to see my daughter light up like a Christmas tree. She loves the team that much that it is truly special and an honor when they come to the hospital and you see the faces of patients and their families.”
This particular group of players visited patients for about two and a half hours, and spent a lot of time with newborn babies and their parents in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. That was especially difficult for them to experience, particularly for the players with kids at home.
"We’ve seen a lot of sick kids, so it’s tough to see and makes you appreciate where we’re at," Sutter said. "I think hopefully a lot of these kids got a kick out of it and we've seen some smiles, so that makes it all worth it."--Michelle Crechiolo
One group of Penguins featured Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Evgeni Malkin.
Before the group went out they started in the children’s playroom. Spaling and Letang took turns playing “Minecraft” with a boy named Chase. The two Pens were very confused on how to play, but luckily Chase was an expert and helped them figure out the maze.
Seven-year-old King showed off his racecars. Comeau and Spaling argued over whose car is faster. So clearly a race needed to take place. Comeau edged out Spaling by a healthy distance.
“That blue car drives like Nick,” Comeau chirped.
“Yeah, slow and safe,” Spaling asserted.
Later Letang shared a slushy – or “slush puppy” as Letang said – with a patient named Justin. The group signed preteen Meghan’s cast. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Kaitlyn made sure to comb her hair before the players arrived. And she was sure to send a photo to her jealous uncle, who is according to her the team’s No. 1 fan.
“It’s fun for us to walk in there and put a smile on their face,” Letang said. “Make sure they’re having fun. We’re lucky to do what we do. I have a son and he’s healthy. It puts things in perspective. I just want to put a smile on their faces.”--Sam Kasan
The group of Marc-Andre Fleury, Andrew Ebbett, Olli Maatta, Robert Bortuzzo and Thomas Greiss had an interesting visit to the ninth floor. They had few moments, both heartwarming and a little crazy, that they probably won’t ever forget.
One of their first stops of the day was to 9-year-old Bella’s room. Bella received a Penguins blanket, a Build-A-Bear and a few important questions from the guys. One of the questions came from Bortuzzo, who was curious as to who her favorite character from the movie Frozen is, which happened to be playing on the T.V. The answer? Elsa.
Bella’s mom Meredith sat back and watched her daughter’s smile continue to grow as the players spent more and more time with her.
“You see these professional players and you usually see them playing,” Meredith said. “Seeing them taking time out of their day and coming to see these kids who are stuck here, especially over the holidays when they can’t go play, means a lot that they are so generous with their time.”
After Bella’s room, the guys moved on to see 7-year-old Zane. Once the guys made their way into his room, Zane couldn’t stop smiling. After he was given his gifts, he asked something peculiar of his favorite athletes. He wanted his head to be signed, which got approval from his mom and nurse, of course.
Fleury, who couldn’t help himself from chuckling at Zane’s zany inquiry, thought it was a pretty cool experience to be a part of something like that.
“That was a first!” Fleury grinned. “That was pretty cool, though. He didn’t stop smiling when he asked us to sign his head, so that was pretty funny.”
Bortuzzo enjoyed his visit and like every year, thinks it is something really special to get to do during the holiday season.
“I know it means a lot to us as players to come in here and meet some great kids who are having a tough go,” Bortuzzo said. “And for us to put some smiles on their faces and mingle and play with them a bit, it means a lot to us and we’re happy to do it.” --Joey Sykes