Once the spring begins to roll in, the Pittsburgh Penguins begin to prepare for the playoffs – but also take their skates off for a night to wait tables.
The Pittsburgh Penguins hosted the 2014 Skates & Plates Charity Gala presented by Trib Total Media Thursday night at the CONSOL Energy Center. The ice was covered and the inside of the arena was transformed to look like a five-star restaurant with elaborate centerpieces and hockey players roaming around in tuxedos to raise money for the Penguins Foundation, the Mario Lemieux Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
The event raised over $300,000 for the charities.
Off came the skates and on went the silvery blue polka dot bowties and matching vests as the team served tables. The players’ primary objectives throughout the night were to make sure a glass was never empty and that food ended up on the table. Secondary objectives included not spilling and not falling for what has affectionately become known as “the Beau Bennett prank.”
The “Beau Bennett” is a reference to last year’s Skates & Plates Charity Gala presented by Trib Total Media, when rookie Beau Bennett was told he had to wear skates and the players would be serving on the ice and skating around. This year, the Penguins tried to trick trade deadline acquisition Lee Stempniak into believing he had to wear his skates.
He didn’t fall for it.
“It’s been fun, some of the guys were saying you had to wear hockey skates and skate around,” Stempniak said. “I didn’t buy that one, but I think they were trying to get me to bite ... I just had a feeling something like that would not be happening, just too dangerous. I can’t believe Beau (Bennett) fell for that though.”
Another goal for the members of the Penguins is to become the night’s top tip receiver, an honor given to Robert Bortuzzo last year. While it was not said what the top tip getter would receive, his table received a signed Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Marc-Andre Fleury jersey. However, for the lowest tip getters, many were joking throughout the night that the punishment would be dish duty.
Bortuzzo laid out the game plan to earn top tips and whom he believes is his toughest competition.
“You have to be quick (to win the tips battle). You have to be on the ball. I know the pressure is there,” Bortuzzo explained. “I know Joe Vitale is usually pretty quick on his feet at these things, so that could be the guy that’s going to knock me off.”
However, it wasn't Vitale that stole the crown. Defenseman Simon Despres took home the highest-tip total with Paul Martin and Brandon Sutter finishing second and third respectively.
Every year the guests and players are treated to a guest speaker from a foundation receiving donations from the evening. This year’s guest was Sydney Willig, a 10-year-old with cystic fibrosis. She spoke on cystic fibrosis and herself, admitting her favorite player is Sidney Crosby. By the end of her speech, Willig had moved some guests to tears.
“We raise money for it so people with cystic fibrosis can see each other,” Willig said. “I have a new friend, Quinn, and we’re good friends and we would like to hug each other and see each other more.”
Brandon Sutter took to Willig and helped her meet Crosby, who gave Willig a kiss on the forehead after meeting her, a highlight of Willig’s evening. Sutter explained seeing her happiness shows the nature of the event.
“It’s been cool (hanging out with Willig). She wanted to get a couple autographs and she was pretty happy to get Sidney’s (Crosby) autograph, obviously. She definitely thinks that he is her favorite,” Sutter said. “I think that’s pretty special for her, we got seven or eight of the other guys. She seems to be enjoying herself, having fun. It’s a fun event for us too, it’s a cool experience and not something we get to do very often.”
Also receiving donations from the Skates & Plates Charity Gala presented by Trib Total Media was the Mario Lemieux Foundation. President of the foundation Tom Grealish said that the money will go to new projects.
“We are planning on opening more playrooms,” Grealish said. “We have a couple big announcements in the hopper that we’ll be coming out with in the spring. We stick to our mission which is neonatal research, cancer research and the Austin’s Playroom. There’s more to follow.”
In his opening remarks before dinner began, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma told the story of why he had to speak at the event.
“I’m really excited to be up here tonight because before every trade deadline, Mr. Shero says to me if we can add one or two players to really help us in the push for the Stanley Cup playoffs then I have to speak at Skates & Plates. So, I am up here because we added Lee Stempniak and Marcel Goc to our team,” Bylsma said with a laugh.
Bylsma also set the night’s spill count at “over/under two”.
Another newcomer to the event, Brian Gibbons, said he hadn’t spilled anything by the end of the night but had been nervous about it. He also expressed how important the event is to the Penguins and the community.
“I think that’s one of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve been called up here is that the guys are really good with giving back to the community,” Gibbons said. “It’s good to be able to give back. The players do a great job, the wives and girlfriends do a great job. I think it’s just a really close bond between the team and the community, which is good to see.”