Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
reached back for the puck and pulled it out of the net. This wasn’t a typical shootout score for the Penguins captain. This wasn’t against the Devils or Flyers. This wasn’t even a game. This was practice.
This practice, however, was anything but typical with the deafening cheers of thousands of Pittsburgh area school children filling the arena.
“It was a little intense,” defenseman Ryan Whitney said. “It was louder than what we’re used to for practice. You could tell that the kids enjoyed it and it’s something that I wish I could have done when I was little.”
Over 9,000 children and chaperones from 63 schools boarded 250 buses to attend the Penguins practice on Tuesday afternoon. Every school in Allegheny County was invited to attend and those that participated were given 250 tickets to the event. The children nearly filled the arena’s lower bowl.
“We thought that it would be a good idea to have an open practice,” said Ron Porter, the Penguins Senior Consultant. “We sent out information to every school, grades one through eight in Western Pennsylvania and gave them an opportunity to get up to 250 tickets. If we had given 500 tickets per school, we literally would have filled up the arena. It could not have gone better.”
“It was incredible to see 9,000 children screaming, cheering and doing the wave," Penguins Vice President of Marketing James Santilli said. "Today was a great day for hockey and a great day for Pittsburgh."
Several students brought hand drawn signs - "St. Alexis loves the Pens" - and Penguins jerseys flooded the arena.
“This experience was amazing,” said Luke from St. Agnes in West Mifflin. “I go to a lot of games and my dad is a season ticket holder. I was never at a practice before. I thought this was a great time. It was cool to see the drills (the Penguins) do and I hope I’ll be back soon for a game.”
“My students and teachers at St. John the Baptist returned from the open practice and they are so excited,” Principal Sandi Stonebraker said. “They had a wonderful time and they really appreciated being able to see the team. One of our students received a hockey stick and she is on cloud nine.”
It was a little intense.said. It was louder than what we’re used to for practice. - Ryan Whitney
Each of the 63 schools were given 250 tickets to be allotted any way the school deemed fit. St. Ursula used the tickets as incentive for its First In Math program. The winning math teams earned the right to attend practice.
Elizabeth Forward Middle School held a food drive for their local food bank. The grade that brought in the most food would make the trip to Mellon Arena. Over a five-day span, the school collected 8,000 pounds of food – over four times the school’s intended goal.
The open practice event was a unique way for the Penguins organization to reach out to schools and students and teach them the importance of education. Following practice, the students enjoyed a series on the importance of education on the jumbotron.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review prepared a four-page educational handout that was given to every student. Included in the handout were: a glossary of hockey terms; rules of the game; a diagram of the ice with measurements and a letter from Penguins President David Morehouse.
“I am glad the Pittsburgh Penguins organization could be a small part of encouraging positive education,” Santilli said.
“One of the things that I think we all recognize is that Western Pennsylvania is a community in transition,” Porter said. “Some young people are making the decision to go elsewhere for their education. We’re hoping that we can create the kind of vitality that will spur a number of people to recognize that there is a future here in Western Pennsylvania, and with us building a new arena and having a 30-year commitment to the region, we’re hoping that sends a signal that Western Pennsylvania is alive and vital.”
Paul Steigerwald and Phil Bourque emceed the event, teaching the children about the different hockey drills conducted and their importance. They also discussed world geography – with the help of a map on the jumbotron – and taught the students where certain players were from: Ruslan Fedotenko (Ukraine); Evgeni Malkin
(Russia); Petr Sykora (Czech Republic). The tandem also highlighted several of the American players that attended college.
If I wasn’t here playing professional hockey then I’d have an education and would be doing something else. - Rob Scuderi
“Staying in school certainly helped me,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi, who attended Boston College. “I was a pretty good student and it helped me get into college. Hockey was a part of that but I did well in school. If I wasn’t here playing professional hockey then I’d have an education and would be doing something else.”
“I think it’s huge,” said goalie John Curry, a Boston University graduate. “You can always have the dream of playing professional hockey but not a lot of kids get to do that. To have school to fall back on, to have that education and knowledge – not to mention the friends that you make along the way – to be in school as long as you can is the right way to go.”
But the atmosphere was an equal benefit for the children and players, who fed off of the crowd.
“It was good for the players too from the standpoint of finally getting a practice under our belt and having the kids there to cheer us was fun,” head coach Michel Therrien said. “That was fun to see the kids out there. I thought the kids were excited to be a part of it.”
“It’s cool to have kids in the crowd,” Whitney said. “It gives you a little more enthusiasm and it feels a little better to be skating out there with people cheering. It’s always nice to hear a cheer when you score a goal, especially in practice.”
I can’t ever remember missing school to see a hockey practice. That’s a great thing for all those kids. - Sidney Crosby
“It was fun,” said Crosby, who heard his named chanted on several occasions. “They were loud. I can’t ever remember, any time, missing school to see a hockey practice. That’s a great thing for all those kids.”
The rowdy children gave the practice the feel of an actual game.
“I think some of the drills were almost game-type situations where you’re trying to talk to the D and you can’t hear them because of the crowd,” Curry said. “It was cool to see. I think we might have had a little more energy because of them. It was a good practice.”
“It was crazy,” rookie Ben Lovejoy
said. “You couldn’t hear anyone and they were yelling at weird times in high-pitched voices. It just shows how much people care and how into it they are.”
The students' enthusiam is evidence of Pittsburgh's growing crop of rabid fans.
“We all realize how nice it is and how much support we do have,” Crosby said. “If you have young kids like that, that’s hopefully a bunch of future Penguin fans when they get older. It’s fun to have that.”
“With 9,000 kids yelling ‘Let’s Go Pens,’ the future is bright.”