It’s not every day that the best hockey players in the world serve dinner to fans.
In Pittsburgh, it happens just once a year at the annual Skates & Plates Charity Gala presented by Trib Total Media, which took place Thursday at CONSOL Energy Center.
“Tonight you’ll see players who are some of the finest athletes in the world stumbling and serving plates and dinner,” joked head coach Dan Bylsma. “I think it’s a unique event in terms of the players and their participation. It’s an amazing event. It’s a great event for the fans and the community to be a part of.”
The event benefits the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the Western PA Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Mario Lemieux Foundation. Since 1986, the team’s annual benefit dinner has raised over $5 million for Pittsburgh area charities with an emphasis on medical research. Last year, the event grossed over $350,000.
It’s also the second year the gala has been held at CONSOL Energy Center, which underwent an absolutely gorgeous transformation.
“I think since we moved it here, it’s a much livelier event,” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said. “I think the attendees enjoy being on the ice, especially when Dan (Bylsma) is telling stories about what happened on the ice. They’re sitting right here. So I think it’s good having it here.”
The event featured Penguins players donning tuxedos – complete with snappy red vests and ties – and serving as waiters for the evening, which also featured entertainment from "The Three Waiters" singing group. Each player was assigned a table (or in some cases, two) and served beverages, salads, entrees and desserts.
Though the guys are certainly much more comfortable with a stick in their hands versus bottles of wine and dinner plates, they understand the importance of this event – and enjoy every minute of it.
“It’s something different,” defenseman Zbynek Michalek
said. “The fun part is that it’s for a good cause. It’s always a fun night and I know that a lot of people enjoy it. The guys have fun with it. It’s interesting being on the other side. Usually on road trips we go out to restaurants and we don’t appreciate how much work our servers have to actually do and how much they have to walk. So it’s nice to see from the other side.”
“I don’t think a lot of us realize how important we are in the community and how much good we can do,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy
added. “This is a really cool thing for us. It puts us in a situation where we’re able to help the team and the organization raise a ton of money for these incredibly important charities.”
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
couldn’t say enough about the generosity of the people he and his teammates served.
“It’s something I’ve noticed in Pittsburgh,” he said of the attendees’ benevolence. “I’ve been here for a while, and I’ve found people are very generous with their time and their money, helping out a great cause and great charities. I think we can make a difference all together working like that.”
The popular Fleury is a veteran of the event, and stopped numerous times throughout the meal to take photos and sign autographs for some of the attendees. His table’s wine glasses got a bit empty in the process, and teammate Craig Adams
had to come to the rescue – and made sure Fleury knew it.
“(Fleury) was a little suspect to start out,” joked attendee David Natale, who sat at the goalie’s table. “Craig Adams
had to come from four tables over to fill in for him a little bit. But obviously he’s getting a lot of attention from people here, so we’re understanding of that.”
Added David’s wife Kelly, “We like his performance on the ice probably better than his performance here, but we’ll take him anyway. We won’t trade him just yet.”
Hopefully, Fleury was able to pick up his performance, as Bylsma announced to the crowd that the player who received the best tips would get a day off at some point between now and the end of the season – and the fate of the player with the worst tips would be up for debate.
“So pour well, don’t spill any wine and serve well,” Bylsma advised.
The coach went on to thank the crowd for their support, and his warm opening address resonated with everyone.
“With the coach welcoming us the way he did, it made us feel a part of this and energized to tip our waiters and to make a good donation to the foundations,” Kelly said. “Overall, it’s just a good event to be a part of and we’re lucky to be here.”