The Penguins played their final preseason game Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. With a weeklong break until the team’s regular-season opener next Thursday, Oct. 3 against New Jersey, the Penguins decided to take a team-bonding road trip.
The location: The United States Military Academy in West Point, New York.
The United States Military Academy is the oldest continuously occupied military post in America. And they’re hosting the Penguins over the weekend to give Pittsburgh’s hockey team a lesson on bonding and leadership, military-style.
“I think we came here with a couple goals for our team,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “We have a week until the regular season. This is an opportunity for us to come and practice for three days as a group before we get into regular-season mode. So in terms of practice-wise, we’re gaining something from it.
“We’re also coming here as a group, as a team, and team-building. We expect to get something out of it in that regard for our group. … Not only how they act, but how they train. I think you hope to gain from that in these few days.”
The Penguins arrived at West Point after taking an early flight Friday morning. They toured the West Point athletic facilities, ate lunch with the cadets in the mess hall and then hit the ice at Tate Rink for practice. There are a number of other activities planned for them during their stay.
“The trip so far is great,” winger Pascal Dupuis said. “I was really impressed by the facilities, by how people talk, how people just conduct themselves and it was great that we had lunch with the cadets. Just talking to them, what they’re going through, the freshmen, the seniors, the juniors – what kind of life, what kind of ranking they have. It’s been an interesting day.”
Dupuis was also impressed with the discipline showed by the cadets in their line formations outside of the mess hall.
“Forming the lines, there’s a lot of discipline involved and they all seem to buy into it,” he said. “It’s pretty fun to watch, it’s pretty fun to see. You can see what (discipline) you can definitely bring to your life, to my house, a little bit of that (laughs).”
Dupuis is experiencing West Point for the first time. But several Penguins have been here before. The team also made bonding trips to West Point in 2006 and ’07 during general manager Ray Shero’s first two seasons with the team.
And the memories of those previous journeys came back as soon as the players arrived on campus.
“I think once you start seeing everything and seeing familiar faces you start to remember some things a little bit more,” said captain Sidney Crosby, who underwent some rigorous training in his first two trips to West Point. “Hard not to forget the six-hour training we did the one night (laughs). So the memories are still fresh of that.”
The Penguins are guests of Army ice hockey head coach Brian Riley, who is a longtime friend of Shero. Riley, who is in his 10th season as head coach, has hosted the Penguins on their previous trips as well. And he noted that it isn’t just the Penguins that will take something away from the trip.
“For us, for our players, these are their idols. It’s crazy that they’re this close to them,” Riley said. “But the amazing thing to me is by the time the Penguins leave here – and they’ve done it twice and I’m sure they’ll do it again – they leave here making our players and these cadets feel like their idols. So it’s really unbelievable to see that happen.”
While the cadets get to meet their idols, the Penguins get to meet their heroes.
“I know what I do is nothing compared to what some of these guys risk and what they do,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi, whose father was in the Marine Corps.
“Those kids are where I was three, four, five, six years ago,” blueliner Matt Niskanen said. “They made the decision to come here. We can’t thank them enough for doing that. A lot of these guys are going to serve overseas, protecting us so we can live the way that we live. That’s the ultimate sacrifice and they deserve the utmost respect from all of us.”