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Pens Players Spread Holiday Cheer Through Children's Hospital

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins players have been making holiday visits to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC since the 1970s to meet with children and their families during the holiday season for photos, autographs and of course a few gifts.

This afternoon, they were Santa’s little helpers once again, delivering presents that included Kindle Fires, Amazon gift cards, team calendars, NHL blankets and of course, stuffed blankets to patients.

The team split into four groups, essentially taking over the hospital and visiting as many rooms as they could.

Two-year-old CJ anxiously waited outside of his room for Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, David Perron and Adam Clendening. He could hardly contain his excitement, to the point that when Perron was pointing out the Penguins logo on the blanket, CJ took off running towards another patient.

“No surprise,” Michelle, CJ’s grandmother, said. “Usually he’s pretty active like that.”

After a nurse brought him back to the players, CJ had quite the one-liner.  

“I’m back, boys.”

As the group made their way around the wing, some players got ahead which, in Letang’s case, gave him an advantage.

Nine-year-old Colin was waiting in his wheelchair with a Kris Letang jersey and mini-helmet. Letang offered an autograph, his signature taking up all of the white space on the crest of the jersey.

Minutes later, Crosby showed up ready to sign whatever Colin wanted, but there was no space left on the jersey.

“I think some of us wanted to sign it too,” Crosby said while Letang looked on with an innocent grin.

Luckily, Colin’s family was around with a few more items for the rest of the guys.

“It was awesome, so awesome,” Colin’s father James said. “I’m so glad that they do stuff like this. It’s fantastic. Especially for him, it’s going to build his confidence more.

Colin is a hockey player himself, in need of that little extra push after getting out of the hospital.

“It inspires him because he plays hockey too,” James said. “It’ll make him want to go play again.”

Colin’s sisters, Amanda and Lindsey, were also on hand for the occasion.

“It was nice seeing (Colin) happy,” Lindsey said. “Going through everything that he’s been going through, it made his day.”

The guys managed to have some fun of their own. Letang started the day with a paint-by-numbers game on a computer while Perron played darts in the teen lounge, which Letang said is his favorite room in the hospital.

But fun and games aside, the players just love meeting the patients.

“It’s really important to come and spread that holiday cheer as best we can,” Ian Cole said. “Try to brighten the day of kids going through a really tough time.”  

“They’re usually pretty happy to see us,” Crosby said. “We enjoy just getting to know them and seeing the smile on their faces.”

–-Joseph Guzy

* I followed Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Plotnikov, Jeff Zatkoff, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and Adam Clendening as they visited rooms, and I can honestly say they were the best group I’ve ever accompanied on a visit to Children’s Hospital.

The talkative group was laughing and bantering the whole time, playing off each other as they went into each room. Zatkoff and Fehr were especially hilarious with the way they chirped Malkin and Plotnikov, while Cullen – a dad of three sons – was absolutely incredible with the kids. They assigned a different guy to be Santa and hand out the presents each time, and found things to talk about with every child they visited.

“We just try to do our best to cheer everyone up and make some jokes and just have some fun,” Fehr said. “We had some great kids today who really seemed to be making the best of a tough situation."

* One of the best examples was when they visited 9-year-old Jenna, who’s a big Pokemon fan. Zatkoff loved that, saying “I traded those when I was in sixth grade!” Zatkoff and Fehr then had an animated discussion about Pokemon with Jenna and urged her to tell Malkin what they were, saying “Explain Pokemon to this guy, he’s from Russia.” Jenna was absolutely shocked and yelled, “You don’t know Pokemon?!” – much to the guys’ delight. She didn’t need to tell Plotnikov, though, as he knew who Pikachu was.

* One of Fehr’s favorite moments from the day was meeting with 17-year-old Tariq and his mom, Mia. Tariq loves football, as the high school senior is a defensive tackle, and that started a conversation about fantasy with Zatkoff and Fehr, who are co-GMs in the Pens’ team league. Tariq is a Raiders fan and told the guys he loves wide receiver Amari Cooper. “We know Coop,” said Fehr. “We traded him,” added Zatkoff. Tariq then told him he would be going out West for college, and that made Fehr happy to see.

“He was just such a polite guy, just a real nice guy,” Fehr said. “Going to school in California. He’s making plans and he’s just real excited about moving forward and getting out of here. Stuff like that is real encouraging.”

Tariq, who occasionally catches Pens games on ROOT SPORTS, said the visit is something he’ll never forget. “It means a lot because you don’t really expect something like that to happen. It was so nice of them to come in and give the gifts that they did, but it was just the fact that they came,” he said. “Giving back to the community. I like that,” his mom added. “That’s beautiful.”

* Another highlight for the guys came when they discovered while chatting with a patient that Plotnikov, who moved to North America from Russia for this season, is a fan of the E! reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” When I first asked Fehr his favorite moment from the day, he joked, “That one’s obvious. When Plotnikov told us he watches the Kardashians.” The guys absolutely loved that, and lengthy conversation about the Kardashians and Scott Disick began – with Plotnikov insisting he only watches it when his wife puts it on. It ended with Plotnikov hugging Fehr and telling him, “You’re my Kardashian.”

* For one family, an already emotional day was heightened even more by the Pens’ visit.

Eight-year-old Kyree had received a rare quadruple transplant the day before Thanksgiving, and CNN did a story about it (read it here). The donor’s family, who lives in Lancaster, read the piece and made the connection. So they drove down today to meet with Kyree and her mother Nan, and were in the room when the Pens stopped by.

“It’s been amazing. Very emotional,” Nan said of the day. “I just said to this couple, I think what the Pens do is so different because when some of the other teams come out it’s rookies or people you’ve never heard of. This is just absolutely amazing. It means everything to the families that they take their time to come and do this.”

Nan and Kyree were actually supposed to go to her first Pens game the week before Thanksgiving, but the little girl was too sick. “Maybe next year we’ll get to watch one,” Nan smiled.

--Michelle Crechiolo

*Ellie, 4, plays hockey and told the players, “I wear a pink helmet.”
*When a group of Pens entered the room of 13-year-old Haden, he responded, “You’re not Sidney Crosby.” To which Ben Lovejoy replied, “Yeah, but Matt Murray gives better gifts than Sid.”
Haden’s parents were moved to tears following the visit and kept thanking the players.
*The newest Pen Trevor Daley gave a stuffed penguin to a newborn baby saying, “I brought you a penguin that’s bigger than you are.” Daley then held the baby gently for a photo.
“This is the most special event teams get to do,” Daley said. “I have two kids at home. When you come and put a smile on a kids face who isn’t having a good day is a special thing. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
*Youngster Brandon ordered a group of Pens, “I’m going to the game on Saturday. You guys better win!” After his command he was given a Kindle by the players. To which he remarked, “This is exactly what I wanted on my Christmas list.”

-–Sam Kasan
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