The Penguins began Hockey Is For Everyone month by inviting kids from Pittsburgh I.C.E. to skate with Ryan Reaves, Bryan Rust and Brian Dumoulin after practice on Thursday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
"It's great, you can see how many different kids are out here - different ages, different sizes, different ethnicities," Reaves said during a break in the session. "It's great for everybody to be able to come on the ice and share one ice surface and have a good time."
That's the goal of Pittsburgh I.C.E., formerly called Hockey in the Hood, which was founded back in 2000 by Cliff Benson. He was visiting a school in a low-income area of Pittsburgh when he realized the kids there needed a lot of help, and at that point, he teamed up with a friend named Howard Smith, who suggested that they get the children on the ice.
"After talking to him, I thought, 'why wouldn't we do that? Why wouldn't we give them something that they've never seen before that all of a sudden can inspire them to move on?'" Benson explained. "Kids in a normal school district, they're not thinking about 'am I moving on?' But these kids are thinking about 'how am I going to get fed today? What am I going home to?'
"When you went to school, the last day was the best day, right? But they would say to me that the last day of school, that was the worst day. It really was. Because they didn't know if they would be back next year. What they meant by that was serious stuff."
So with a grant from the NHL and the Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni, the program was developed. The name has since been changed from Hockey in the Hood to Pittsburgh I.C.E., which Benson loves.
"Inclusion Creates Equality - what does that mean?" Benson said. "That means when we look out here on the ice, we see African-American kids, we see white kids, we see kids that are coming from difficult circumstances and they're all out there together. It doesn't matter what they're going home to, what matters is that they're all on the ice together and they're building relationships. So for me, it's been a gift just to be part of it."
For many years, the program has provided ice hockey instruction to hundreds of kids throughout the Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania area. Pittsburgh I.C.E. is committed to offering children of all backgrounds the opportunity to learn to play the game of ice hockey and embody its core values - commitment, perseverance and teamwork.
"It makes the kids feel so accepted when they come, and I think that's so important," said Richard Payne, who is the program's middle/elementary school coordinator and special events coordinator. "Because they already come with the preconceived notion that it's hockey, that's not something we play. But then they get out there and everybody is so welcoming."
That showed on the ice ice today, everyone was clearly having a blast - particularly the Penguins players.
"I think it's awesome," Rust said. "I think what they're doing here is something to be proud of. I think the kids like it, I think they get a lot out of it. I see a lot of smiles out here. So I think for us out here, it's a chance to help out the community and we really like to do that."