The smile on 3-year old Jamire Samuels’ face said it all.
As Penguins center Evgeni Malkin handed over a box of Play-Doh to Jamire, any sort of worry or fear seemed to disappear as his grin grew wider and wider.
“This is the first time he smiled since we have been here,” said Samuels’ grandmother, Kimberly King.
Malkin and the Penguins continued a team tradition on Friday, ditching hockey helmets in favor of Santa hats and traveling room-to-room to deliver Christmas presents to patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
During the annual visit, players stopped to chat with the children and their families, posed for photos, signed autographs and distributed gifts.
Penguins players and coaches donated the funds used to purchase the toys that the children received.
Malkin visited patients for over two hours in a group with teammates Chris Kunitz, James Neal, Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi, Robert Bortuzzo and Kris Letang.
“They really made his day,” King added. “I think the guys come out and make him feel a lot better. The gifts are great. The only thing he is upset about is wanting to open his Play-Doh now.”
During the visit to the hospital in Bloomfield, Malkin was able to speak in his native Russian to some of the family members in the room of 18-year old Brandon, talking about the upcoming holiday season and the Olympics that will be held in Sochi. He also didn’t waste the opportunity to crack a few jokes about his good friend James Neal, sharing some laughs with Brandon’s mother.
Neal shook off the humor and a moment later asked, “Hey ‘Geno,’ do they have Santa in Russia?” Malkin replied, “No, but I still believe.”
On the way out of the room, Brandon and his family were sure to beg Neal to score more goals and told the rest of the gang to keep the winning streak alive.
“It is tremendous,” forward Tanner Glass said on his first Children’s Hospital visit. “Especially at this time of year, no one likes to be sick at Christmas time. The little bit of joy and cheer we can bring, it is great. I think it means a lot to the families.
“When you see the smiles on the kids faces, it is so worth it. This is such a small thing for us, and such a great thing for the families. Just happy to be doing it really.”
While Malkin led one group around the hospital, Sidney Crosby led another on a different floor. He was stuck with a couple of notable pranksters in Pascal Dupuis and Marc-Andre Fleury, and a couple more laidback guys in Simon Despres and Jussi Jokinen.
They got into the Christmas spirit right away as they prepared to visit baby Emeric in one of the first rooms, forming a train to tie each others’ hospital gowns while giggling the entire time before they went to say hello to the infant and his parents, Michele and Jonathan. The guys signed one of his favorite toys he brought and posed for pictures.
Though Emeric may not have known what was going on, it’s an experience his parents can’t wait to tell him about when he’s old enough to understand.
“He’s only 20 months old, so for him, it was actually kind of intimidating to see all these big guys come in,” Michele said. “But I think just seeing all of us excited (was) incredible. I know that they’re busy, and to give their time, especially at this time of year, means a lot to us.
“We’re big Penguins fans. It’s awesome. They come to visit the kids, but the adults live here too, so it means a lot.”
From there, the smiles never left the guys’ faces as they continued from room to room for over two hours. Dupuis especially never passed up a chance to banter with the captain to try and make the kids laugh.
“We had a good time today,” Crosby smiled. “Met a lot of different kids. I think we laughed maybe more than they did, so everyone just had a good time and hopefully took their mind off things here at the hospital.”
Dupuis is a guy that just has so much fun doing what he does every day. He loves to laugh with and chirp his teammates and acts like a little kid at heart. And he was all of that when spending time with the kids, but got serious afterward talking about how emotionally tough this visit is.
“It’s hard,” said Dupuis, who has four young children of his own with wife Carole-Lyne. “Every time that we come here, the morning of it, I always tell my wife that today is one of the hardest days for me just coming here and visiting some sick children. It’s obviously touching. I joke a lot, I mess around a lot with the guys, but this stuff, it’s hard for me to do.”
But fortunately, as Crosby said, they can bring a lot of happiness to the patients and their families by taking the time to spend time with them – and today, they made the day of one who finally gets to go home.
After Crosby’s group had finished, the captain stayed behind to surprise a little girl who had said she was too nervous to meet him. After their visit, he starting walking to the elevator to catch up with his teammates. A boy named Michael was leaving the teen lounge as he approached, and asked in disbelief, “Is that Sidney Crosby?!” When we responded in the affirmative, he couldn’t contain his excitement. Crosby stopped to talk to him, sign an autograph and take a photograph.
After that, Crosby told him to wait while he retrieved the rest of his group so Michael could get their autographs and another photo.
After the rest of the guys joined them, Michael kept shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s just such a great day, to meet all you guys,” he said. He added it was a good day to be at the hospital since he wouldn’t be there tomorrow – he was getting discharged just in time for Christmas. The guys all congratulated Michael and told him they were so happy for him.
The guys seemed to agree that Jeff Zatkoff was the star of the day. The affable netminder is one of the most friendly, talkative guys on the team and was in his element getting these kids to smile. He and Joe Vitale, another awesome human being, were a dynamic duo going from room to room trying to spread Christmas cheer.
“Jeff and I had a little tougher challenge there,” Vitale said. “We didn’t have any presents. They didn’t allow gifts in that area we were going to, so we had to bring the spirit and the energy just from ourselves. But Jeff’s one of the top guys to do that. We kind of fed off each other day. I think the kids had a lot of fun. I know we had a lot of fun, so it was a great day.”
One patient they visited had just come out of surgery, so she was feeling a little dazed. When they asked her if she wanted to meet Penguins, she thought they meant actual penguins and asked if she could pet them.
So what did Zatkoff and Vitale do?
“Me and Zats kind of did our best penguin waddle into the room,” Vitale grinned.
Another one of many lighthearted moments came when Crosby’s group visited a nine-month-old patient. The little guy had a shock of white-blonde hair that was standing on end in a Mohawk style that reminded them of someone they knew.
“Olli Maatta!” cried the guys, who loved the little man’s hairstyle. And to be honest, the infant did look like he could be the baby brother of the towheaded rookie Penguins defenseman.