Every day, 12-year-old Victoria Viagetti asks her mother, Tara, to drive her over to the dek hockey rink at Brookline Memorial Park that was built earlier this year as part of Project Power Play, a joint venture between the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and Highmark.
“Every day it’s, ‘Mom, can we go up to the dek?’” Tara laughed. “And I just say, ‘Absolutely, I’ll drop you off.’ It’s absolutely wonderful. We’re very fortunate.”
On Wednesday, Tara took Victoria – a goalie – to the arena, where she stopped shots from Pittsburgh’s 2014 first-round draft pick Kasperi Kapanen and received instruction and advice from fellow netminder Tristan Jarry, who won the Memorial Cup this past season with the Edmonton Oil Kings, as part of a youth hockey clinic conducted by the Penguins prospects.
Kapanen, Jarry, Brian Dumoulin, Anton Zlobin, Jean-Sebastien Dea, and Ryan Segalla were assigned to Brookline, while the other prospects in town for this week’s development camp spread out to put on clinics at five other rinks in the city and county.
"It's nice to be here,” Kapanen said. “I can see that the kids are really enjoying it and us being here is probably a big thing for them. It's a big thing for us to help them out."
Perhaps the biggest focal point of development camp is learning what it means to be a professional athlete and learning what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin, and a huge part of that is giving back to the community.
And getting the prospects involved with something that’s so important to both the organization and the community in Project Power Play, which is designed to build a total of 12 local dek hockey rinks in a four-year period, was the perfect way for them to do that.
“This is part of development camp. You can teach them all the stuff on the ice; you can bring in people to teach them about social media and nutrition, but part of being a pro athlete is giving back to the community,” said Penguins assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald. “With the involvement with the dek hockey arenas and the Penguins Foundation, what better way to integrate our prospects into something that we are proud of and believe in?”
Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto and Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse joined the prospects and players at the Brookline rink. And for Morehouse, who grew up in nearby Beechview, seeing firsthand the impact this facility has on the community hit close to home – literally.
“It’s great for the prospects to see what the Penguins organization does for the community and how involved we are, and it’s also good for the community to see these young prospects and for them to volunteer their time to come out and help the kids,” Morehouse said. “But I think the fact that we’re putting 12 of these in around the city is just tremendous. I grew up in Beechview, right next door to here. When I was a kid, we played hockey on basketball courts. We didn’t have facilities like this. There’s a lot of kids that are playing. I know the Brookline Association has hundreds of kids in their association already and it’s the first year of the rink. So we’re excited that our players see what it is that we do and what’s important to us both on and off the ice.”
Peduto is a big hockey fan, and the only politician to lace up his skates as a member of the Pittsburgh Celebrity Ice Hockey Team. Growing up, the mayor played ball hockey on streets and driveways and tennis courts (with the nets taken down). He’s thrilled to see so many dek hockey rinks going up in the area, and enjoyed seeing the prospects experience one for themselves.
“(This rink is) state of the art, as good as it gets,” Peduto said. “These kids are going to be the benefactors of that for the next couple decades. Having the prospects here is great, because they’re going to be doing a lot of skating and going through drills with the coaches. But to really understand Pittsburgh, you’ve got to get out of that arena and into the community. What better way to do it then to be able to celebrate an investment in the community that’s been made by the Penguins and Highmark?”
A few of the prospects had never heard of dek hockey before. And they wish they’d known about it sooner.
“It’s a lot of fun. I wish I had one of these rinks growing up in Maine,” Dumoulin said.
“There’s nothing like this back home where I am in Canada and Vancouver,” added Jarry. “So this is amazing to have this around here and for all the kids to be able to play on it.”
Having somewhere to play with his buddies is why 7-year-old goalie Anthony Delmastro enjoys dek hockey so much.
“You get to have fun and not be in the house all the time, and you finally get to play with your friends,” he said.
And that’s exactly why the Penguins and Highmark have teamed up to build these arenas – to get kids active.
“It can be an expensive sport, so this is the easiest introduction to it,” Morehouse said. “All you need is a stick and a ball. We have a lot of programs to introduce kids to hockey and try to eliminate the financial barriers that keep them from playing. This is one of them.
“It gets kids off the couch. The purpose of the Penguins Foundation and the purpose of Highmark’s involvement is physical fitness and getting kids active. It’s harder and harder to get them off the couch and away from the TVs. This is a good way to do it.”
Peduto shared an old saying that drove that point home even further.
“Hockey is very much like baseball was when I was growing up,” Peduto said. “It’s what the young kids want to play. If we can provide them the opportunity to do so at places like this, it’s only going to help them later in life. There’s an old adage, a kid on cold ice is never in hot water. This may not be cold ice, but the same advice applies.”