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Pens Trade Helmets for Santa Hats at Children's Hospital

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

When the Penguins delivered Christmas presents to patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC on Monday, Marc-Andre Fleury’s eyes lit up when he spotted a certain gift on his group’s cart: a mini goal, stick and ball set.

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So when Fleury and his teammates reached the room of the intended recipient, a young patient named Stevie, captain Sidney Crosby – whose jersey Stevie wore – did the honors of assembling the net before the goalie and his little buddy took to the floor and started playing, with 'Flower' grinning, “I got to show them how it’s done.”

Fleury tended the tiny net while Stevie tried to score. And every time he managed to slip one past his famous friend, the sound of pure joy and laughter escaping from his lips would put a smile on even the Grinch's face.

It’s moments like those that signify just how important this annual visit is to the players, a tradition the team has upheld since the 1970s.

“It means a lot to us. I think we get a little more out of it then they do,” forward Steve MacIntyre said. “It puts a lot of things into perspective. I think all the guys are all big kids at heart and I think for a few of us, it really hits home. A few of us have kids.

“It’s pretty cool that we can be able to come and maybe brighten these kids’ days by just saying hello and spending some time with them.”

Forward Chris Kunitz, who has two young children, agreed wholeheartedly. They can't even begin to fathom what these amazing kids have to battle through on a daily basis, but hope that their visit helps serve as a welcome distraction for at least a little while.

"It's a tough thing to come and see families and what they're going through," Kunitz said. "But if you can take their mind off some situations that they're going through, it brightens everybody's day. You can't take their pain away, but maybe you can take away some of things they're worried about for a few minutes."

“This is a big one for us,” forward Craig Adams added. “We feel like you can at least maybe make someone's day better. Sometimes in a hospital, that can be a big thing. I think it's probably one of our favorite events, for sure.”

The Penguins embodied the giving nature of the holidays by raising the funds to purchase all of the toys the children received on their annual visit. 

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During their visit, the players – wearing Santa hats tipped at jaunty angles – split up into groups in order to visit as many children as possible. They chatted with the patients and their families and took photos, signed autographs and distributed gifts.

"I think every guy is happy to come here and do this," Crosby said. "We realize that it can’t be easy times with what these kids are going through, especially at this time of year. So hopefully we can just come in and put a smile on their face. It’s something everyone enjoys doing."

The players’ visits were total surprises to the patients, who said meeting the Penguins was a present in itself.

“It was a very, very good gift,” said 18-year-old Rhyan. “I appreciate it a lot. It means a lot. It’s an honor that they came in and saw me. It’s very, very nice. Not too many people get to meet them. That’s actually what I wanted to do one day, is meet those guys. And I finally got to do it.”

Not only did it help raise their spirits, but it also served as a bit of motivation and inspiration as the players visited many kids during the day that played hockey or dreamed of one day playing, like seven-year-old Javen.

Javen hopes to start playing as soon as he can, so meeting his idols was a dream come true. His mother Mary was grateful for their visit, because she felt it shows her son what he can achieve in his life.

“I think that it brightens their spirits,” Mary said. “I think that when they see what someone can achieve in their lifetime, that might be an example to them that someday. I think that it brightens and gives them motivation. It was a really nice thing that they did and I'm really happy about that. We do watch hockey a lot, so we are very familiar with the Penguins. So it's really neat that we got to do that.”

Some of the highlights from Monday's trip:

  • To Evgeni Malkin’s delight, one of the patients he visited, two-year-old Artem, hailed from his native country of Russia. Artem’s parents came to America six years ago and his mother Anna was in the room when Malkin stopped by. She and her son conversed in Russian with ‘Geno,’ who instantly took to the little boy. “He asked me how long we’ve been here, what we’re doing here, what our diagnosis is and how Artem doing with everything,” Anna said. “I’m originally from a city that’s very close to the city where Malkin is from. So he knows my city. He asked me about it.” Anna also shared that Malkin was pleased to meet them, “because he still speaks mainly Russian and he still feels more comfortable with Russian-speaking people. So he was very happy.” Malkin bent down to hug the little boy before he and his group headed to the next room.
  • Craig Adams took some time to play a little Guitar Hero with 8-year-old Rynique. Adams jammed on the guitar while Rynique beat the drums to "We Will Rock You" with computerized images of Queen on the screen.
  • One-month old infant Brian was all smiles and laughs as Matt Cooke cradled him in his arms. Even Cooke's teammates noted how much little Brian enjoyed Cooke's affection. Brian even reached his tiny paw toward Cooke and nestled into his chest. The group of Pens gathered around for photos and as the visit came to an end, the nurse had to extend her arms a few times before Cooke unhappily handed Brian back. Cooke gave a final wave and smile.
  • Two-year-old Tyler made a new friend in Pascal Dupuis, and the little guy was all smiles as Dupuis held him through the entire visit. The two of them joked around and showed off their muscles. Tyler enjoyed his visit with the Penguins so much that he wanted to continue to walk around with them for the rest of their time at the Children's Hospital. Tyler kept asking for his gift and when Dupuis finally brought it to him, he ran away leaving Dupuis alone at the end of the hall sadly saying, "He doesn't want to play with me anymore."
  • Five-year-old Jazlyn was in awe when she first met the group of players. Even with some encouraging from Dupuis, she was too shy to take a picture with the players at first. However, they all came back to the room after a while to get a picture. As the players gathered around her bed, Craig Adams, who is a father to two young children, pointed up to the television which was playing a movie and asked, "Is this 'Tangled,’” making Jazlyn smile.

Sam Kasan and Kaitlin Zurawsky contributed to this report.
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