There were some very special guests in the stands for Penguins practice at CONSOL Energy Center on Tuesday.
The organization treated children from several different local charities to a front row seat to the Penguins’ skate, as well as a meet-and-greet lunch with the team in the arena’s Lexus Club afterwards.
“To see their faces and smiles, knowing that they’re having a dream day for them to come see us practice and have lunch and meet them, it’s great,” head coach Dan Bylsma smiled. “It’s great to see their families. It’s rewarding for us, especially knowing the effect we have in spending some time with them.”
Thirty families from the Pittsburgh Make-A-Wish Foundation, The Children’s Institute and The Children’s Home attended the event, which has been a team function for the last 26 years.
During the Penguins practice and throughout the meal, the children and their families had a blast receiving some additional entertainment from team mascot Iceburgh and Chippo the Clown, who made balloon animals for the kids.
It was a lot to look forward to for the families, as they’ve all been through a lot recently.
That was especially the case for Nicole Neuschwander’s daughter Annabelle, who had an MRI done just before Christmas that showed some regrowth as well as a brain tumor.
“It’s just been a tough time,” Nicole said. ”Then she had her tonsils and adenoids out, so she’s been in the house for the past week. This was our first day out. This was very exciting to look forward to. I think it was much more than any of us expected.
“It’s beyond any of our expectations. It’s just been the chance of a lifetime. We are really enjoying it. The whole family is.”
Joseph Vecchio and his wife didn’t even tell their son Julian until this morning that they would be making the trek to CONSOL Energy Center. And needless to say, Julian was thrilled – especially when he spotted captain Sidney Crosby
at the luncheon, whose T-shirt he wore to the arena.
“It was a surprise for him today. We kept it from him just to make sure he was up for it and we could get him off school and that kind of stuff,” Joseph said. “We told him this morning, so he’s been looking forward to it ever since. He was hoping Sidney was going to be here, and him walking in was a big deal.”
It meant a lot for them to be able to get so close to Crosby and the rest of the Penguins players, who spent time talking with the families, taking pictures and signing autographs.
“It’s amazing. My kids love the Penguins. They really enjoy watching them,” said Frank of West Homestead, who came with his wife Natalie and their children. “They’re a great organization. For the kids to be able to come down here and see them up close and kind of make a personal connection, it’s a really exciting day for them.”
Hassan Nnaeto, one of the kids in attendance, joked about how it was tough to figure out who was who on the ice because their practice jerseys don’t have numbers on the back. But he still appreciated being able to see the players in a way he’d never experienced before.
“It’s still shocking right now,” he admitted. “But it’s cool. It’s very cool. I’m happy and thankful to be here.”
And the feeling is mutual.