The Pittsburgh Penguins welcomed the members of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins and the Johnstown Sitting Bulls sled hockey teams to the CONSOL Energy Center to watch practice and then for a skate afterwards on Monday.
And the teams didn’t just get to play on the ice. During the skate, Marc-Andre Fleury
, Joe Vitale
, Brooks Orpik
and Steve McIntyre joined them on the ice.
The Mighty Penguins players went against Fleury in a shootout that Mighty Penguins adult team head coach Ray Harding thought was the best part of the experience.
“Fleury wanting to take the shootout with the guys and letting them go one-on-one with him, that was really the best part,” Harding said. “Seeing one of our guys (Josh Wirt) actually score on him, that was pretty cool.”
McIntyre traded in his skates for a sled for most of the practice and got firsthand experience of what it’s like to play sled hockey.
“I especially had fun,” McIntyre said. “I wasn’t so good with the puck, but I was banging into a lot of people and running into a lot of people and a lot of people were running into me. I think we made a new game. It was sled hockey/bumper cars. It was a lot of fun.”
“My straight-away speed wasn’t too bad, but my cornering wasn’t so good,” added McIntyre with a smile. “It’s actually about the same feeling on the ice too, I don’t corner so well.”
This is the first time that the Mighty Penguins and Sitting Bulls have been able to come to a practice and see their idols.
“To be able to be on the ice and skating where the players that they idolize are on the same ice, to be able to share that experience where the next time they watch a game they’ll be like ‘Hey, I was on that ice, I was by that bench, I was behind that bench, I was behind that goal,’ it’s really huge,” Harding said.
Forward Josh Wirt, a 2002 Paralympic gold medalist, enjoyed the opportunity to skate in the NHL arena.
“To be here and watch practice and then go out and skate on the ice that they skate on really means a lot to us as players,” Wirt said. “Just to play at the same place they do and watch them play is pretty cool.”
Sled hockey is an internationally recognized sport that is a key event in the Paralympic Games and gives physically challenged individuals the opportunity to play competitive ice hockey.
“I was always into sports before my accident. I just really wanted to be able to compete again and play sports again,” forward Wirt said. “Somebody introduced me to hockey and I fell in love with the game and haven’t stopped playing since.”
Harding expects his players to learn from watching the practice.
“Hopefully they realize the intensity that we have at our practices and they realize where it’s coming from and what (the Penguins) do here translates to our practices,” Harding said.
Harding said he appreciates the Penguins for taking the time to join everyone on the ice, but McIntyre seemed most excited to be on the ice with the hockey sled teams.
“You could see the smiles on their faces and they definitely brought few smile to mine that’s for sure.”