After the final buzzer sounded in the Penguins’ 3-2 loss to Florida on Saturday, there was an slight air of dejection surrounding the fathers gathered around their sons’ locker room.
As hockey dads, they know perhaps better than anyone that hockey players are a superstitious bunch. And because the Penguins dropped both games of the sixth annual Dads’ Trip through the Sunshine State, the feeling was that they might not be back next year – that it may be the moms’ turn to join their sons.
But even if that does turn out to be the case, the Penguins and their fathers can still chalk up the sixth annual Dads’ Trip as a success.
“It’s been really awesome,” said Ken Sullivan, who made his first Dads’ Trip with the Penguins. “It’s great to be able to meet a lot of the fathers. It’s also always really nice to meet the players that you’re watching on TV – the players that your son plays with that they talk to you about.”
Penguins GM Ray Shero instituted the Dads’ Trip tradition when he arrived in Pittsburgh back in 2006 to give back to both the players and fathers. Every year the team’s players, coaches and staff get to bring their fathers on a two-game road trip – this one stopping in Tampa Bay, Ft. Lauderdale and Sunrise.
The fathers follow their sons through every step of the trip – from breakfast to the bus, to practice, to team meetings, on the plane and finally watching the games from a suite. It gives the dads a chance to see their sons in action day-in and day-out.
“The biggest thing is that ownership and management actually does it for us. I think it’s a real tribute to them and the organization,” Marvin Kunitz said.
It’s something that hockey legends like Bobby Orr, who lives in the area during the winter and stops by the suite when the Dads’ Trip stops in Florida, would have cherished during their days.
“I love meeting the fathers,” Orr said. “When I was playing we didn’t have fathers’ trips. I can only imagine my father on a trip like this. He was obviously a big hockey fan and he would be loving this. This is wonderful.”
Certainly, one word that came up repeatedly when describing the best part of this excursion is “camaraderie.”
“When we started doing the trip the first year, you kind of see the camaraderie that develops between the fathers,” Shero said. “Even on this trip here, there were a lot of new friends. Some guys had never been on a trip like this before.”
Indeed, that’s the part of the trip that the dads cherish most – getting to meet other players and their fathers, exchange stories and discover that they’ve all had similar experiences.
“There was a big turnover this year. It’s a great camaraderie between the fathers coming in,” said Rick Orpik, who’s been on all six trips. “We had new fathers coming in and I met every one, so I meet a great group of people every year.”
One aspect of the trip that never ceases to encite a laugh from both the players and fathers alike is just how similar some of the guys are to their dads.
“I think you’d have to say Mr. (Andre) Fleury,” Ken Sullivan said with a smile of whose dad is most like his son. “I think the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree on that one.”
For a dad like Ken, who watched Steve battle back from a back injury that forced him to miss 153 straight games (including playoffs) a few years ago, getting to accompany his son on this trip and watch him play the game he loves was especially meaningful.
“You can never take it for granted,” Ken said. “We got a big scare when he hurt his back and he was out for two years. We kind of realized then that you never know when it’s going to end. So you are always proud to be able to follow it and see him play, and to this day, I never miss a game if I can.”
The dads are certainly bummed to have left Florida, as the weather turned gorgeous on Saturday – the last day of the trip – after three days of rain and drizzle.
But there’s one thing they’re looking forward to about going to, it’s getting back to a normal diet.
“Just the way you eat, it’s non-stop,” Marvin Kunitz said. “It’s pretty good so when you go home you have to go on a diet for a while to get back to a normal life.”
The Dads’ Trip began on Wednesday, where the fathers took in practice at CONSOL Energy Center. They boarded the team plane to Tampa Bay right after and were treated to dinner on a boat that night courtesy of the Penguins.
Thursday after breakfast, the dads traveled to the rink for a morning skate. Bylsma and the coaching staff invited the dads into the locker room for the pre-skate team meeting where assistant coach Tony Granato went through the game plan and Lightning scouting report.
After that, the players started their pre-game practice a little late because of the team photo they took with their fathers on the bench.
Following the Penguins’ 4-1 loss to the Lightning that night, everyone boarded the plane for Ft. Lauderdale, where they awoke to pouring rain and high winds that lasted most of the day.
Luckily, the sun was shining and the sky was blue on Saturday. And since Bylsma decided to make the morning skate optional, the dads had the entire day to enjoy the pool, beaches and beautiful weather before they boarded the bus for BankAtlantic Center to watch their sons take on the Panthers.
And while a win on Saturday would have been the perfect way to end the trip, the dads got a worthy surprise when hockey legend Bobby Orr greeted them at their suite and hung out during the game.
Most of the fathers grew up watching Orr, who revolutionized the way defensemen played the game and who is one of the greatest hockey players ever to play the game. So needless to say, it was awesome for them to meet No. 4 – and he had just as much fun getting to know them.
“I’ve always been a big fan of Bobby Orr myself, so seeing him here tonight was just amazing,” said Ken Sullivan.
After the Penguins dropped a 3-2 decision to the Panthers, everyone got on the plane back to Pittsburgh to go their separate ways after a wonderful, memorable trip.