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Pens spread holiday cheer at Children's Hospital

by Bryanna McDermott / Pittsburgh Penguins

Seven-year-old Addison didn't blink an eye when Sidney Crosby stepped into her room at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. "Hey, 'Sid,'" she casually said as the captain knelt down to hand her gifts and look at the gingerbread man ornament she was painting. 

Crosby and the rest of the Penguins made their annual visit to Children's Hospital on Thursday afternoon, a tradition they've upheld since the late 1970s, trading hockey helmets for Santa hats to spread a little holiday cheer to the patients and their families.

The players split up into four groups to visit as many rooms as possible, bearing gifts of NHL mascot blankets, stuffed penguins, Penguins' Yearbooks and Amazon Echo Dots.

Accompanying Crosby were Eric Fehr, Olli Maatta and Marc-Andre Fleury. They were all equally impressed by little Addison's art skills, but were more curious by the black Mustang power wheels sitting in the corner of the room.

"Do they let you drive that out in the hallway?" Fleury asked. "Do you go fast?"

The answer? Yes, she's allowed to drive her car in the hallways, but only on the lowest speed.

Later, Maatta and teenage patient, Virginia, discussed their love of the Netflix show Shameless.

"Don't you dare!" Maatta warned when Crosby tried to get Virginia to give spoilers, since the Finnish native is only on Season 3.

Playing a game of NHL with some Stanley Cup Champions is a 13-year-old's dream, but for Cameron it was a reality.

As the group entered Cameron's room, they looked at the television screen. The score was Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Pens 0.

"Looks like we lost today boys," Fehr chirped.

The main reason the virtual Pens lost according to Cameron was because the goalie kept jumping out of the way. "Sometimes the pucks hurt!" Fleury justified.

Teenager, Sean, was supposed to be discharged on Wednesday, but due to a fever had to remain in the hospital. While he was upset that he couldn't go home, the Pens visit made him feel a whole lot better.

"I was really surprised," Sean said. "I wasn't supposed to be here today. I was supposed to be gone yesterday. I wanted to go home, but I heard the Pens were coming, so I decided I was going to make the most of it."

Sean also had his entire family on hand for the event. His parents, brother and sisters crowded around for an unforgettable family photo.

 "It's heartening that these guys take the time out of their day to come here and meet a child who's not doing really well right now," Sean's dad Rich said. "It's a special bunch of guys and we appreciate it. We really do. As parents when you see people go out of their way to help you, they make you feel better. Today Sid, Eric, Olli and Marc-Andre made it a really great day."

The group of Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen were also a hit among the children.

Dumoulin even met another Brian, this one only 9-years-old, who paused his video game to give the players some major hi-fives as they entered the room. Cullen was especially interested in the game, which featured a collection of Marvel characters. "Good luck, take him down," Cullen told Brian after he explained how he couldn't beat the latest villain.

The Hornqvist family may be getting a little bigger after Patric got to hold 4-month-old Skyra.

"Maybe it's time for another one," Hornqvist joked as they left the room. "Don't tell my wife that!"

Five-year-old Vishali couldn't even wait for the players to make it to her room. She stood at her doorway as the group walked down the hall, squealing "Penguins!"

The patients and their families enjoyed the special visit, which gave them brief moments of distraction from some difficult times. Many of the Pens' players have children of their own, making the annual tradition a little more heartwarming.

"It's very easy for us to come over and spend some time with them," said Fleury, who has two daughters. "It's such a small gesture. They're going through so much, I'm glad we could make them smile a little bit and give them a souvenir. I think it makes you realize how lucky you are and your family is to be healthy. These young kids are such good fighters; they have good spirits. It's nice to see."

"It's important," Crosby said. "I think it's the least we can do. In a lot of cases, they're fans of the team and fans of the guys, so we're just happy we get to meet them. A lot of kids and their families don't get to spend Christmas at home and aren't going to be around all their family and friends, so hopefully we can have a good time with them, have some laughs, and change their mind a bit."

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