Monday morning marked the sixth-straight year the Penguins hosted their “Pittsburgh Penguins Kids Open Practice.” CONSOL Energy Center played host to nearly eight thousand students from 54 schools across Allegheny County.
The event, which began when the first kids started arriving around 10 a.m., offered students from Grades 1-8 an opportunity to experience a Penguins practice and see the drills and techniques players use to get ready for a game.
Pop music from artists like Taylor Swift and Carly Ray Jepsen blasted over the sound system as the morning progressed and gave the kids reason to get out their seats to dance and sing along.
Trivia questions about players, Iceburgh and shots of the kids dancing along to the music were shown on the videoboard to make a unique atmosphere for everyone in attendance.
For defenseman Kris Letang, while it may have been tough to hear his teammates on the ice, that didn’t take away from the fun he and the guys were having on the ice.
“It’s pretty cool to see them come and cheer and give us a different atmosphere to practice in," Letang said. "And with the music, it makes it a little bit more fun."
ROOT Sports play-by-play announcer Paul Steigerwald and Penguins Radio Network color analyst Phil Borque helped emcee the event. They introduced the players as they skated out from the locker room and got the kids involved in the practice. The tag-team asked questions like “Where would you rather be, here or school?” and started the “Let’s Go Pens” chant.
As practice concluded, the duo interviewed Penguins players as they headed off the ice. When Zach Sill’s time came to answer questions, he made sure to offer some advice by telling the kids to make sure they did their homework when they went home. This was met by a collective groan from the kids, as well as some boos from Steigerwald.
Seventh graders Luke Bauer and Joe Wallace of Brentwood Middle School wore their 87 and 71 Pens jerseys, respectively, and thought it was an awesome experience getting to see their favorite players on Monday.
“It was cool seeing Crosby, Malkin and Letang out there and how they still played with all what was going on,” Bauer said.
“I liked getting out of class and seeing them when they weren’t actually playing in a game,” Wallace said.
It wasn’t just the kids that were having a fun time on Monday. Many of the students' teachers came along for the ride too.
Kevin Mauer, a music teacher at South Fayette Middle School, enjoyed seeing his students having a great time at the arena.
“Our experience has been excellent,” Mauer said. “The kids are ecstatic. They love seeing themselves on the jumbotron and the love seeing the stars on the ice. For myself, I loved seeing how the students have enjoyed this opportunity and how they haven’t taken it for granted. We are really honored to be here.”
Eighth grader Sam Schuler, one of Mauer’s students, enjoyed taking a break from his schoolwork and getting to see some of his favorite hockey players in person.
“I loved it,” Schuler said. “I love being with my friends being out of class and being able to come see the Penguins.”
Duquesne City School District’s student service coordinator Martina Vitalbo stressed how important this experience is for the Pittsburgh-area students.
“I think to be exposed just to such an event in the city and to understand the dedication of the Penguins’ towards education is great,” Vitalbo said. “Many of them will never have another opportunity to come to a Penguins’ practice or game, so it’s just a real treat for these kids.”
The morning was once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids and for teacher Joe Allison of Wyland Middle School, he’s proud of the Penguins for taking the time to get it done right.
“It’s been awesome,” Allison said. “Just seeing the kids getting to come down and seeing it tie in with our physical education of exercise and healthy lifestyles is great. This is the future of the Penguins’ fan base and it really gets the kids involved and excited about hockey.”