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Crosby's Little Pens Golden Ticket skate the 'north star' of the NHL

by Naomi Shimada / Pittsburgh Penguins

On Wednesday afternoon, Sidney Crosby reported for practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. 

No, not for Penguins practice, but for a special "Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey" skate - where he took the ice with 100 children from the program along with his Penguins teammates Brandon Tanev, Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty and Andrew Agozzino.

"It's fun," Crosby said with a smile. "The kids had great energy, and I have some great memories as a kid being at hockey camp and having good experiences that way. So just to be out here and see the smiles and the energy that they bring, that's what it's all about."

Now in its 12th season, the Little Penguins program provides free head-to-toe hockey equipment, including skates, to 1,500 youngsters aged 4-9 each year. More than 13,000 children in the Pittsburgh area have been introduced to hockey this way.

"My son's cousin played hockey and he's a lot older," said William Kauffman, whose 8-year-old son Noah was on the ice. "Basically, through the rink up there, I found out about the Little Penguins program. It's great for the kids to get all this equipment for free. You can't beat that. It's very nice."

One hundred participants in this year's program randomly received "Golden Tickets" when they picked up their equipment at DICK'S Sporting Goods locations. That served as their invitation to Wednesday's event.

"I'm really excited," said 9-year-old Destiny Peoria. "Sidney Crosby is my favorite player. I've been looking forward to this for a while. After I finished Little Pens, my mom told me I got a Golden Ticket to come here, so I was super excited."

The two rinks at the UPMC Lemieux Sports complex were buzzing with kids, and the stands were full of parents with their phones out to capture the event.

John Atkinson's 6-year-old son Jace was on the ice while his 3-year-old son Cooper watched. It's Jace's first year with the Little Penguins program, and he plays out of Brady's Run.

"I grew up playing hockey, and it's just a great thing that the Pittsburgh area offers," Atkinson said. "It was unbelievable for kids to be able to do this. When I played, there was nothing like this going on, so to experience it with the professionals and coaches, it's unbelievable. Jace was so excited to be playing with Sidney Crosby; he's his favorite player."

Watching from the stands, Cooper stood close to the glass and even did some pretend shooting while watching his brother run shooting drills in front of him.

"This is definitely the north star. The Golden Ticket skate is probably one of the premier events that we see around the league," said Matt Herr, Senior Director of Youth Hockey and Industry Growth for the NHL. "Having Sidney Crosby and the team be a part of this event is even more special. Any time you can get an interaction with a current player, it's going to create a love for the game. 

"Crosby is not only one of the greatest players in the NHL, but he's one of the greatest players of all-time. So these kids will remember this experience for the rest of their lives. It's not just about the hockey today. When their idol comes out on the ice, it goes from, 'Ok, I'm concentrating on the puck' to 'Ok, it doesn't even matter anymore.' They're going to be a fan for life."

On the ice, Crosby played goaltender while a lot of pint-sized No. 87s took shots on goal. Crosby let the pucks slip between his skates and into the net before fist-bumping them and bending down to have little chats.

Youssef Zerfa, a six-year-old who took the ice with Crosby, used his time with the Penguins superstar to invite him over for dinner.

"He asked him, 'Can you have dinner at our house,'" Youssef's older brother Nassim reported happily. "And he said, 'That would be fun.'"

Moments like that are what it's all about for Crosby. When he was growing up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, he had the opportunity to skate on the ice with a few local hockey legends including Cam Russell, Glen Murray and Brad Richards. 

The memories that Crosby made playing with them is part of the reason why he started the Golden Ticket event as part of the Little Penguins program.

"I think as a kid being able to share the ice with them, I'll always remember those moments," he said. "It's a unique opportunity. You want to make sure they're having fun, it's a good experience."

For Lafferty, being on the ice with the kids was a sentimental experience. Being from Altoona - which is two hours east of Pittsburgh - he's been familiar with the Little Penguins program for a while, though he wasn't able to participate because it began after he had begun playing hockey.

"This brings back memories. It's a blast being out there," Lafferty said. "You can see how much fun those kids are having. The whole Little Penguins program is just really cool. I remember when it got started, it's actually a big thing in my home rink in Altoona as well."

After about 45 minutes, the Golden Ticket skate wrapped up following a group photo - with smiles not only on the kids' faces, but Crosby's as well.

"Trying to introduce the game is something, obviously, that I'm passionate about and have been," Crosby said afterwards. "Seeing all the coaches and families here at the rink brings back some old memories. It's just fun to see the kids out here having a good time."

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