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Pens play Santa at Children's Hospital

by Michelle Crechiolo and Sasha Kandrach / Pittsburgh Penguins

Before the Penguins' 'Superhero Theme Night' on Thursday, some of the players met a tiny little superhero roaming the halls of UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

A group of Penguins players led by Sidney Crosby stopped by Porter Harmon's room during their annual holiday visit, where the 4-year-old was wearing a bright orange shirt that read "Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Porter" on the front and "PORTER POWER" on the back.

Porter had just finished playing some soccer with a stuffed ball, and Crosby informed him that they had some good two-touch players in the group. After taking photos, signing autographs and distributing gifts that included an Iceburgh pillow and a Love Your Melon hat, Porter's mother Holly thanked the group for stopping by, telling them that their visit not only puts a smile on the kids' faces, but on Mom and Dad's faces as well.

"We're just very appreciative that Sidney Crosby of the Penguins took the time to come down here to see the kids, which I think is just awesome," Porter's father Mark said. "I know the Penguins do tremendous work in the community, and we're just very appreciative."

Porter just finished his third round of chemo for acute myeloid leukemia. Whenever Porter is admitted, he has to stay about a month, so they have been at the hospital since Nov. 21. They expect to stay there until Dec. 20 and will return again in January for his fourth and hopefully final round, as Porter is currently in remission.

"We are just told all the time how well he's doing and how well he looks, so we are very positive and prayerful that he's beat this and it will never come back, so that's good," Holly said. "He's only a week-and-a-half out from his third round of very intense chemo, and he's just weathered the storm so well. So we're very blessed."

In talking with families like the Harmons, Crosby said he's continuously blown away by their mindsets and attitudes.

"It's not an easy time, especially this time of year and dealing with what they're dealing with," he said. "But their families and them individually, just how strong they are and the attitude that they have, I think that always stays with me when I leave."

Down the hall from Porter, 18-year-old Dylan Carr just got admitted on Monday and was set to undergo his first round of chemo Tuesday evening. Receiving a visit from Crosby beforehand helped raise his spirits before beginning his long journey ahead.

Dylan made sure to wear a green Penguins T-shirt for the visit, which the players all commented on when they entered the room. And after they left, Crosby asked for a ball cap that he could personalize for Dylan, writing, "Like the shirt, great to meet you" on the brim. The gesture brought Dylan to tears.

"Even hearing about it before, it still surprised me," Dylan said with a smile. "You could tell, I was all pale, I couldn't speak. It was a nice surprise. It was a bit of a confidence booster, too. The support, I really appreciate it."

At one point, Crosby stood to the side chatting with Dylan's mother Jemma, asking where they were from and what Dylan's situation was.

"It was very nice," she said. "You hear stories on TV and he is who he is in person too. You can tell he truly cares. He was asking questions about his journey and how long he's going to be here and that sort of thing, and that really means a lot."

Dylan was speechless when he realized he was receiving a visit from Crosby, while 20-year-old Mahkiya and her grandmother Rhonda Bennett had the opposite reaction.

When Mahkiya learned that Penguins players would be stopping by, she FaceTimed Rhonda, who now lives in Aruba. Rhonda wondered if Crosby would be stopping by, and at that moment, Mahkiya caught a glimpse of the back of his jersey and gasped. "I said, that's him!" Mahkiya exclaimed.

Mahkiya kept her grandma on the phone for the whole visit, and Crosby got a huge kick out of talking with her. She had the guys cracking up as she gave them some good-natured chirps, with Crosby laughing at one point, "I like your attitude. Can't get anything by you."

When they went to pose for a picture, Crosby told Rhonda that she was going to be in it too, holding up the phone and even checking to make sure that she was smiling. She most definitely was.

"That's my favorite guy! I've been following him since he came to Pittsburgh!" Rhonda said. "Oh my gosh, that's so great. I can't believe we got to meet the Penguins."

The patients' spirits weren't the only ones raised. Injured defenseman Justin Schultz joined his teammates in the excursion. Schultz has been sidelined since Oct. 13 when he fractured his left leg.

Being alongside Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist, Matt Cullen, Derek Grant, Derick Brassard, Jake Guentzel and Zach Aston-Reese had Schultz grinning as the group visited with different kids.

"It's such a special experience. Not one I would want to miss, even if this bad boy is barking," said Schultz, referring to his leg.

Schultz bonded with 10-year-old Christopher, who was hospitalized with a heart condition. Schultz and Christopher talked about playing Mario Kart and the video game tournaments the players have during long road trips.

Christopher's physician's assistant, Alyssa Baker, was moved by the cheerful mood from her patient.

"It's amazing to see that smile on his face," Baker said. "He's been through so much since he's been here his entire life. Today wasn't a great day for him, but I'm glad the players could make it better. For these kids who go through this stuff, they sometimes don't get to leave for a long time. To see the outside world come to them and make them feel like a normal kid again means everything to them."

A few floors up, another group consisting of Kris Letang, Casey DeSmith, Riley Sheahan, Dominik Simon, Jack Johnson and Juuso Riikola was making visits on the pediatric floor.

One couple, Ryan and Jennifer Francis, were in complete shock as the group walked in to visit their infant daughter, Charlotte Francis, who is just under two months old and recovering from a bowel resection.

Ryan was proudly wearing a Penguins hat. After taking a few pictures with the players, he rolled up his pant leg and revealed a tattoo on his calf of the Penguins logo. He got the tattoo back in 2004 when he lived in Florida so he could flaunt his loyalty to the Penguins in the year-round warm temperatures.

He then asked the group to autograph around his tattoo, which sparked an immediate comical reaction from the players who then proceeded to line up and sign his leg.

"You're already embarrassing our daughter and she's not even two months old yet!" Jennifer said jokingly.

As the group continued stopping by rooms, Letang was surprised when he recognized the wife of former Penguins player Eric Godard. Myrika Godard was visiting a close friend of hers whose infant is a patient at the hospital. Now living four hours outside of Vancouver, she recalled upon the fond memories they made when Eric played for the Penguins from 2008-2011.

"We miss it," Myrika said. "The whole team and the Penguins. It was such a big part of our lives, just great memories in Pittsburgh. The organization is amazing for helping their local community. I'm so glad to see they're still doing such amazing outreach. That was always so special to the players and the wives when we were there."

Having kids of their own put the experience even more in perspective for the fathers on the team. Johnson was a natural when it came to visiting the pediatric unit and holding fragile infants, and he volunteered any time a parent requested a photo. Cullen connected with the younger kids and managed to crack a few shy smiles. Hornqvist, who has two young girls of his own, was humbled by the experience.

"When you get your own kids, this perspective gets so much bigger," Hornqvist said. "I hope my kids are never going to be seen in this kind of atmosphere. At the same time, the kids are here to get help and it's an amazing place for that. I'm so lucky and spoiled my kids are healthy right now. Just don't take life for granted and just make sure you enjoy every second."

Even after five years in Pittsburgh, this annual outing is his favorite of the community events the Penguins players participate in.

"It's so cool to see the kid's eyes when we walk in the room," Hornqvist said. "They just light up. I know that makes it special for us. To be able to help out like that gives us some good energy back. It's always my favorite one we do."

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