An hour before the skate, general manager Jim Rutherford was thrilled to announce the signing of five kids from the Make-a-Wish Foundation to special one-day contracts.
After enjoying a breakfast in the locker room with the Penguins players, Colton, 14, Jason, 9, Joseph, 19, Logan, 18, and Raymond, 11, put pen to paper, inking their contracts and kickstarting their special days.
"We tried to help him with his wish," Jason's mom, Meredith said. "You could do this, you could do this, and his exact words were: 'I want to be trained by Sidney Crosby.' He knew exactly what he wanted."
When asked about the day ahead, all the youngsters were adamant on what they were looking forward to most.
"Skating with the players," Raymond said.
Each of the kids, devoted Penguins fans from Make-A-Wish chapters in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, South Carolina, and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada took in practice before joining their favorite team on the ice.
It was a special day for all involved, and with kids from different states, as well as Canada, it helps illustrate the geographical footprint the Penguins have developed among their fanbase.
"Once we found out the date that the wishes would be happening," said Dana Antkowiak, a senior manager of marketing and communications from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, "It was calling everyone, getting them into town and making sure the date worked for them. To be honest with you, the Penguins take care of everything and they do an awesome job. We just get to come in and have an amazing day."
Last year, the team also partnered with Make-A-Wish to host and help five more kids live out their dream of being Penguins for a day.
"Our relationship probably spans the 30-plus years that our chapter has been around," Antkowiak said. "Whether it's granting wishes or different fundraising events, the Penguins are always a popular choice for wish kids. These kids can truly really wish for almost anything, and they choose to spend the day with these guys. The players get it, I think it lifts their spirits as well. Ultimately, wish has a profound impact on our kids, and it's not just some nice thing for one day, it truly has an impact on them for years to come."
After watching practice with their families, the kids headed down to the locker room, where they had their own stalls set up for them to get dressed and ready. When they stepped on the ice, the fun really began to start.
All of the kids linked up with Penguins players, engaging in passes to get used to the feel of the puck. Raymond was dishing with Riley Sheahan, while Colton and Jake Guentzel paired up. Jason, with scoring on his mind, instantly located a puck and skated into the zone to challenge goaltender Matt Murray. Logan found himself squaring off with goaltender Tristan Jarry.
After practice concludes, a lot of the Penguins players often form a half moon in one zone of the ice to shoot, staying on the ice until someone knocks the Gatorade bottle off the top shelf of the net. Joseph, clearly more of a playmaker, headed down to this end of the ice, and began feeding the Penguins players with passes that they teed off into the empty cage.
"It's not every day that you get to come and skate with the Pens," Joseph said. "You get to hang out and do everyday stuff with them. It's amazing, it's pretty fun. I've always wanted to skate with the players, be around the guys, and get to know them."
Sidney Crosby, Conor Sheary, Guentzel and Jarry stayed on the ice the longest. Crosby was the favorite player among most of the group, and each of the forwards found themselves taking pictures with the youngsters. Crosby spent a good amount of time passing with each of the kids while getting to know them.
"It's fun," Crosby said. "The opportunity to meet them, I'm happy they got their wish to see the facility, meet some of the guys, and be out there on the ice with us. It's fun to have them over here, see a smile on their face, and mess around out here. It was great having them and I hope they enjoyed themselves."
While getting to know Jason, the Simpsonville, South Carolina, native excitedly told Crosby that his dog is named Sidney Crosby, although Jason just calls him Sid. Although the dog didn't make the trip, Jason did bring some pictures of his pet. Jason, who shares the same birthday with Crosby, Aug. 7, had a nice moment with his favorite player when he proudly showed Crosby a photo of his dog and took a picture with the superstar once they got off the ice.
It's these close interactions with the players that are truly special, and moments that resonate with all the kids involved. After learning when their wish would occur, just a few weeks prior to today, it's something they were unable to get out of their mind, clogged full of excitement and anticipation, unsure what to expect.
"It's been awesome, crazy, and way better than we could've ever expected," Meredith said.
What the five youngsters received throughout the day was a handful of memories that are going to last, skating with, passing with, passing to, and scoring alongside their heroes. It's one of the great things about sports, being able to connect over a game. In hockey, connecting on the ice, and as you step on the ice, the feeling that all your problems seem to evaporate.
"They were happy to be out there," Crosby said. "We pretty much had to boot them off, they would have stayed out there all day. It's great to see that they're having fun, we enjoy having them out there and hopefully it's been a great experience for them and their families."
As the on-ice session winded down, the five youngsters, Crosby, Guentzel, and Sheary congregated in front of the net, around the puck bag.
All the pucks were picked up, all except one. It stayed this way for a few minutes. The frozen black rubber biscuit laid still on the ice. It was like they didn't want to put the final puck in the bag, like they didn't want the day to end.
It was clear to see why. While the five youngsters sat at their stalls after practice, they began to take their equipment off. Each stall, equipped with a Penguins jersey, sweatshirt, hat, and scarf, also held a towel. While the water droplets of sweat were easily absorbed into the towel, their smiles weren't wiped off so easily. After the day they had, those smiles are going to linger for a while.
Earlier in the day during the Penguins practice, Colton was talking about his favorite Penguins moment, reflecting on the success the team has had over the past two seasons.
"Watching them win back-to-back Stanley Cups," Colton said. "Watching them win it, it's an amazing feeling, to know the team that you root for, the team that you love, can put together a championship."
Colton spent quite a lot of time with Guentzel, Crosby and Greg McKegg on the ice. Colton was skating around the rink, doing a few laps by himself, when Guentzel noticed and challenged him to a race, from goal line to goal line.
They took off and were neck and neck, but with a late push, Colton was able to outlast Guentzel in the final stretches.
It's safe to say after today's practice, Colton has a new favorite Penguins memory. All of the youngsters who signed their special one-day contracts do. It was an extraordinary day, generating lasting memories that will be cherished by Colton, Jason, Joseph, Logan, and Raymond, as well as their families, for a long time.