It’s customary for the Penguins to serve wicked wrist shots, pinpoint passes and earth-shattering body checks against opposing players.
But the Pens traded in their sweaters and sticks for tuxedos and bowties Tuesday night – just one day after five players and coach Dan Bylsma delivered pizza to hungry Student Rushers before their game – to serve dinner at the annual Skates & Plates Charity Gala presented by Trib Total Media at CONSOL Energy Center.
Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said he thought the players’ participation in the benefit dinner and pizza delivery showcased just how involved the team is in the Pittsburgh community.
“They’re versatile on and off the ice,” Morehouse joked. “We're very lucky and very fortunate in Pittsburgh to have the types of players we have. They enjoy doing things with people. It's something where it's a mandate from the ownership from Ron Burkle to Mario Lemieux on down through the staff and organization at all levels, and the players are really enthusiastic about it. With this particular event, they get to have direct contact with people too. I think they like that, too.”
Pascal Dupuis took part in both events, and said he is happy to do whatever he can for the community and the fans that support them.
“Any time they ask me to do stuff like that I’m always willing to do it,” Dupuis said. “It’s always great to give back.”
Tuesday’s gala benefits the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the Mario Lemieux Foundation and the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Since its inception in 1986, the event has raised over $5.5 million for local children’s charities that focus on medical research.
“It’s something that us as players, we really enjoy doing,” first-time Skates & Plates server Tanner Glass said. “Giving back is a big part of our life away from the game too, so events like this are really important for the community to get involved in.”
Tom Grealish, president of the Mario Lemieux Foundation, said he considers the event to be an instrumental contributor to the foundation.
“It means an awful lot to us,” Grealish said. “Not only for the fundraising itself – and it is a big fundraiser for us, but the affiliation with Mario and Ron Burkle and the Penguins organization is a natural one and they’re just unbelievably generous to us.”
This was the third year the dinner has been hosted on CONSOL Energy Center’s ice. The arena was barely recognizable as it was transformed from a hockey venue into what looked like a five-star restaurant.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero said he considers the gala the team’s “best event” and said the players enjoy it just as much as the attendees.
“It gives them the chance to mingle with the fans,” Shero said. “This is my seventh year coming to this and every year is different, but every year I meet new people. They have a great time, they’re interacting with everybody. So, it’s a great night for them. They’re waiting on people and collecting tips for great causes.”
The players, who are accustomed to wearing black and gold jersey with the iconic skating penguin crest, also received a makeover, donning long-tailed tuxedos with white vests and bowties. Each player was responsible for a table or two where they served salads, entrees and beverages.
They were all gunning for Matt Cooke’s crown, as the players competed to earn the highest tip total of the night, which would be given to charity. Cooke won the tip battle last year and described his strategy while he was giving event rookie Robert Bortuzzo a helping hand with his table.
“My approach is to be involved and jump in with two feet and just be really interactive with the people,” Cooke explained. “These people paid to be in this place and it’s rewarding to get to know people and for them to get to know you on a personal level.”
The patrons enjoyed having the players’ full attention, as a “delay of game” penalty was assessed to the players for the amount of time they took taking pictures and signing autographs. But two patrons who were served by Sidney Crosby, Kevin Sutter and Colleen Wilson, getting to know the Penguins captain was absolutely the high point of their night.
Crosby may have been neglecting his serving duties just a little bit, as he took a seat at the table and chatted animatedly with everyone for a long period of time. But the table definitely did not mind.
“He’s very gracious,” Sutter said. "It’s been very enjoyable speaking to him just about being Sid and just kind of getting a little insight into what it’s like to be the hockey player and living the life."
“It’s nice to see him be able to relax with us and just be a person,” Wilson said. “To have him as part of our table, it’s a privilege and an honor. But he’s also a nice guy, so it makes it all the more enjoyable.”
While Cooke and Crosby are veterans of the event, there were a few first-time servers, including Beau Bennett, who Bylsma said was “gullible” during his pre-meal speech. The team fooled the young forward into thinking the name “Skates & Plates” meant the players had to wear their skates while serving the patrons.
“I wouldn’t call it a prank as I really thought we were going to be skating and serving the food to all the fans,” Bennett said. “I thought they were going to bring our skates over and we were going to be skating on little aisles in between all the tables, so I was trying to get in the right mental state to do that tonight.”
While Bylsma used his time to crack a few jokes, he also drove home how unique this event is to the local community.
“What other place can you have came to last night and watch Evgeni Malkin down there where that … big, white thing is and watch him score a miraculous goal, and then the next night you get to have Evgeni serve you wine, tell you jokes, flash his smile and show his personality?” Bylsma asked, pointing toward a large white plant that was placed a few yards in front of where a net usually stands.
The Penguins thank sponsors Trib Total Media, 84 Lumber Company/Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, AEC Group, Inc., Dick’s Sporting Goods, FedEx Ground, The Hofmann Family and McKamish, Inc., for their support.