Some surprises are worth the wait, no matter how hard it is to keep a secret.
Daniel Lehman, a sergeant in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who was deployed for 11 months in Kuwait, surprised his three daughters at the Pens' game against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday at PPG Paints Arena.
Lehman and his wife Mary orchestrated the surprise as their daughters Lauralyn (12), Rayanne (8) and Janelle (6) were under the impression that their father wouldn't return from his deployment until Christmas. It was an undertaking that took months in the making.
"You can't ask for a better moment," Lehman said. "It was something that the wife and I were talking about throughout the tour. I mentioned it to her and said, 'We might as well ask (the Pens). The worst they can do is say no and then it's not that big of a deal.' So then she sent the email. I saw a lot of the responses back and it started snowballing. It started rolling and getting more elaborate. Everything started falling into place."
Mary told their daughters that they were one of three families with a deployed parent that the Pens would be hosting at the game. Meanwhile, Daniel arrived in Pittsburgh late Sunday night, staying at a hotel and hanging out around the rink prior to the game so that he wouldn't be tempted to ruin the surprise.
"I have trouble being away from the kids," Lehman said with a laugh. "Even when I'm home and the wife and I want to get away for a weekend, I'll last about four hours before I'm ready to go pick them up and change plans to do something together."
But after two tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait, Lehman was able to hold on and really stun his daughters. The surprise was executed perfectly during the first TV timeout of the first period. The girls thought they were playing a game with in-arena host Celina Pompeani. As they
looked at the video board, a message flashed across that said, "Welcome Home Dad!" They turned around to find their father in uniform with arms open.
"I had no idea. None," Lauralyn said.
"It was the best surprise ever, I feel so happy!" Janelle exclaimed.
Lehman, a lifelong Pens fan, introduced his wife and daughters to the sport. They love to watch hockey together as a family, and this was their first time doing so in person as the girls were attending their first Pens game.
"It's awesome," Rayanne said with an enormous grin. "I can't wait to come back!"
Lehman has been through a lot during multiple deployments. Hockey has become an outlet for him, helping him deal with his emotions in a healthy way.
"With the kids, we found something that's kind of like an element for me," Lehman said. "I can focus on it and I can enjoy the game. I'm one of those crazy fans where if something goes bad, I could smash something. I get emotionally involved with the Penguins games. They don't see that side to me very often. They're learning that no matter whether you have anger or happiness, you've got to find an outlet and put it somewhere."
It can be easy to get caught up in the technicalities of the games: what the score was, who played well and who didn't. But sometimes the something as simple as a sport has the power to bring people together. For the Lehmans, the Pens and the sport of hockey are more than just a game, and tonight they all came together to create an incredible experience for the family.
"I'm just happy to have him back," Mary said with relief after pulling off the surprise. "It means so much to us. This was so special and we're beyond grateful for everything the Penguins organization did for us."