It was all smiles tonight at Paradise Island Bowl & Beach in Neville Island as the Penguins kicked off their seventh annual “Pens & Pins” Charity Bowling Tournament for the greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia Make-A-Wish foundation.
There was action happening in 23 lanes, and each one featured either a player or a coach, a child from the Make-A-Wish foundation and three to five fans who generously donated to take part in the event. One fan in particular went out of his way to make the night extra significant for Pens defenseman Olli Maatta.
A teenager named Ben Popko has been waiting for the chance to give Maatta the puck from his first Olympic goal ever since his dad gave it to him in 2014.
“As soon as my dad got it for me he knew that Maatta was my favorite player, and I immediately knew that it belonged to him and not me,” Popko said.
Maatta was touched by the young fan’s kind action.
“I mean, it’s pretty surprising,” Maatta said. “I’m kind of at a loss for words. It’s awesome. It’s a really nice gesture and it means a lot.”
The Penguins’ Wives Association established this event in 2009. Since then, through the tournament, online auction, and bake sale the program has raised more than $300,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The wives and girlfriends of the players and staff are happy to be able to get involved and give back to the community on the organization’s behalf.
“For some of the kids it’s life-changing,” Veronique Fleury said. “For some of the Make-A-Wish kids, it’s actually their wish to meet some of the players so they’re just having the time of their life and the guys enjoying seeing them too. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Cindy Himes, Director of Community/Alumni Relations of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, is extremely proud of the turnout Pens and Pins has earned over the years.
“The nice thing about this event is for those couple hours the kids are having fun, their families are having fun and they’re doing something they typically would not do,” Himes said. “And the best part is they’re doing it with their favorite Penguins player.
Monica Sowers is the mother of one of the Make-A-Wish children, and she shared a very similar sentiment. Her six-year-old son Evan suffers from a genetic epilepsy disorder called Axenfeld-Rieger syndrome, and he is handicapped.
Evan began having seizures when he was just 10 weeks old, so a lot of his life has been spent in and out of hospitals.
“Bowling and hockey are his two favorite things, so to combine them together is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Sowers explained. “He loves it. This is nice to get out and be a family. Get away from the hospital. Get away from the doctors and see him smile and enjoy something. It’s just great.”
Tonight’s event was an amazing experience for everyone involved, and the players are happy to be able to give back to the community.
“I think individually and as a team, we’re more than happy to be a part of this and help out in any way we can,” captain Sidney Crosby said.