Aaron Cohen approached head coach Dan Byslma with a grin wider than a four-by-six hockey net.
“Thank you, this is a dream come true,” Cohen said, as he shook Bylsma’s hand.
Cohen, a Marine Corps veteran and Wounded Warrior, was one of 11 military veterans on hand to watch the Penguins’ morning skate on Wednesday – including Wounded Warrior Project veterans, ALS veterans and “Hockey Saves” veterans.
“This is absolutely incredible,” Cohen said. “I’ve always been a Penguins fan because I thought they were the best team, and they are (laughs). Just having us here means so much to not only me but also everyone else I’ve told about being able to come out here.”
The veterans watched morning skate from Suite 66 as the Penguins donned camouflage jerseys. Every Penguins player had a patch sewed on the chest of their jersey supporting a different military unit.
Penguins players will wear the same special camouflage jerseys during the warm-up Wednesday night, and those jerseys will then be autographed and auctioned at www.nhl.com. Proceeds from the auction will go to the Wounded Warrior Project, Austin’s Military Playroom at the new Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton and the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation.
A number of military veterans will attend Wednesday’s game as special guests of the team and its corporate partners – some being hosted in Evgeni Malkin’s charity suite, and others receiving tickets form ATI, PNC and the National Flag Foundation.
Brooks Oprik, one of nine American-born players on the team, said the event is just one of many the Penguins do annually to support the real heroes.
“This is great that we do it,” Orpik said. “There are a couple of us that do it throughout the year, this one obviously gets the most media attention but there are guys in our locker room that bring servicemen and women in on a game-by-game basis. I think there is a lot of admiration and respect for those guys throughout the year.”
Following practice, a group of the American-born players and Bylsma greeted the veterans in the locker room and gave each of the 11 veterans personalized Penguins jerseys.
Bylsma and the players were able to reminisce with some of the veterans on hand about the Penguins experience at West Point earlier in the year, when they got a small taste of what military training entails on a daily basis.
“It is awesome,” said Jeff Thomas, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq in 2005. “It is unreal. I’m still kind of in awe. Really just at a loss for words.”
Almost all the vets said they were rarely able to follow the Penguins while they were overseas, as they were forced to read month-old newspapers and catch the occasional game on the Armed Forces Network.
The chance to meet some of their sports idols may have made dreams come true, but Byslma said the efforts of the vets couldn’t be matched by any act.
"A lot of them have Pittsburgh ties and you can see them looking at our players with respect and looking up to them, but the true lesson is from them and their sacrifice,” Bylsma said. “And what they’ve given is something we can’t match. We certainly appreciate that from them and hopefully we showed that to them today by our jerseys in the morning skate."
For Cohen and company, that opportunity will be one they won’t soon forget.
“It is just so cool to come on out here and see them and see them supporting veterans. Words really can’t describe the commitment the Penguins have made to our veterans,” Cohen said. “It is truly inspiring.”