As Veterans Day approaches, the Penguins reached out to say 'thank you' to those who served in the American military by inviting 12 post-9/11 veterans to spend the day at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday.
Each veteran attended morning skate before receiving personalized jerseys from the Pens' American-born players in the locker room and then had lunch in Suite 66.
Tonight, they will be in a suite to watch Pittsburgh's game against Minnesota - where the team will reserve one empty seat at the arena as a "Seat of Honor" in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for American freedom and to those who still serve our country.
Players will also wear special camouflage jerseys during pre-game warmups, which will be auctioned off to benefit the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania (click here more on the Pens' initiatives to honor military heroes).
The experience was humbling for all involved.
"It's unreal," said Nathan Babyak, a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant from Bethel Park. "It's a dream come true. I remember being seven and eight-years-old and watching the '91 and '92 teams. Then, when I was in the Marines, I was in Florida when we won in 08-09. I was one of the few Penguins fans down there. Just being here now and seeing it in real life, it's surreal."
"It's great," center Nick Bonino said. "We love when that happens, I don't think we can honor the veterans enough. I think the sacrifices they make and what they do for our country is pretty amazing. Whenever we have veterans here, I think everybody is excited. We're excited to give them some jerseys here and have them take in a game and hopefully get a win for them and have some fun."
Both the Penguins and the veterans were all smiles as they exchanged handshakes, thank you's and laughs in the locker room after morning skate.
"It's amazing," said Lauren Bates, who served in the United States Air Force, after getting her picture taken with Phil Kessel. "It's really humbling to see this organization pull this together and it's an honor. Pittsburgh sports in general are the best and we appreciate it."
Even captain Sidney Crosby showed up to thank the veterans and take pictures.
"It was amazing to meet him," said Larry Heyl, an officer at the VFW, who had a conversation with the captain as he entered the room. "I'm a big fan and he's the greatest player in the world right now, it was a real honor."
But if you asked any of the players who had the chance to meet these men and women, the honor was all theirs.
"It's a huge honor," defenseman Ian Cole said. "I think as a culture, hockey players really respect and appreciate our nations and what our military does for us as a country and a society. Any time you can honor those people for their sacrifices and what they have given up to protect you and us as a country, it's awesome."
"It's cool to have them come to the game and give them a jersey," defenseman Brian Dumoulin added. "It's a special thing they do for us and our country and it's a small part on our side being able to honor them tonight."
While the Pens' actions are small in comparison to what these military heroes have given their country, it was an amazing experience to share between the organization and those who have served the country.
"It's wonderful that the Penguins and the Penguins Foundation can open up their doors to give back to the veterans who gave so much for our country," said Ben Stahl, the Executive Director of the Veteran's Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania. "Talking to each one of them individually, I know it means a lot to them, they're all Pens fans. If you put it in perspective how much they've given and for this to mean so much to them, it's wonderful that the Penguins are able to do that."
The American players also wanted to give a special message for those they met today and all of the men and women who have serve and continue to serve this country.
Bonino: "Thank you, just thank you. I don't think we thank them enough. A big thank you from all of us."
Dumoulin: "Thank you. Without your strength and power, we wouldn't have the freedoms we have in this country. I'm very thankful for the people that fight for this country. It's a special night to be able to honor them, but it's only a small part for what they do for us."