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"This Is The Best Day of My Life"

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

When Amanda Kohn picked up her 6-year-old son Hayden’s equipment at Dick’s Sporting Goods back in December after registering for Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins Learn to Play Program, initially, she didn’t notice the lucky Golden Ticket in his bag – given to 100 randomly selected participants.

“Honestly, I didn’t even see it in the box of his equipment at first,” Kohn said. “He’s like ‘here Mom, here’s this Golden Ticket.’ I’m like, ‘what’s that about?’”

On Friday, Amanda and her husband Jeffrey quickly learned what the ‘Golden Ticket’ entailed. They watched as Hayden was surprised by Crosby and his Penguins teammates Marc-Andre Fleury, Patric Hornqvist, Carl Hagelin, Jeff Zatkoff, Derrick Pouliot, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Scott Wilson for a practice session split between the two sheets of ice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

“Honestly, I teared up a few times,” Amanda said of watching Hayden – who she says ‘lives and breathes hockey’ – interact with the players. “I’m so proud of him because this is what he wants to do and I know how important this day is to him that as a mom, it’s just kind of emotional. This is actually way beyond what I thought this was going to be.”

Amanda turned to Jeffrey.

“How long were we here before Hayden said, ‘This is the best day of my life?’” she asked. “We’re very grateful and thankful for (Crosby), to come down onto their level and to be able to give them this experience – especially for somebody of his caliber in this sport – to get kids involved and get them to love the sport also.”

“He really looks up to those guys,” Jeffrey added. “You should see him watching games. You just can’t believe it when you’re that close. You put yourself in the perspective of a kid, it’s like ‘wow, these are my heroes and I’m on the ice with them, and they’re teaching me something about hockey.'”

It’s an experience that Crosby and the guys couldn’t be happier to give the kids.

“It’s fun. They have so much energy,” Crosby said. “On a day like this where you’re done with practice, you’re a little tired when you get out there. You seem to get a bit of a jolt of energy when you’re out there with them. They’re having a ton of fun.

“The hardest part is just trying to get them to go in line and figure out what they’re doing out there (laughs). Usually there’s a few stragglers, but it’s pretty fun to be out there.”

A combined effort between Crosby, CCM, Dick’s Sporting Goods and the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation provided free head-to-toe equipment – including skates, stick, helmet, gloves, pants, shoulder pads, shin pads and elbow pants – to 1,000 children between the ages of 4-7 this year.

Now in its eighth season, the program has introduced over 7,200 players to the sport since its inception in 2008-09 and has played an absolutely crucial role in the growth of youth hockey in western Pennsylvania.

For Crosby, it’s been crazy to reflect on just how far the program has come since the beginning.

“I think the cool thing has been to see the numbers grow and to see the interest grow,” Crosby said. “The registration was I think 500 at the start. I think it’s almost 1,000 now or close to there. Just to see the kids who have gotten into it and that they’ve enjoyed the experience and year after year, parents, kids come up and say they’ve been involved in the program and had a great time with it.”

That’s absolutely been the case for 7-year-old Trent Gordon, a first-time enrollee in the program. Because the kids aren’t just given brand-new equipment through the program –

they’re given an opportunity to learn the sport.

The players receive weekly lessons (10 total) at 24 participating rinks, including four special programs for girls only. Volunteers at each venue provide on-ice teaching. And Trent has been having a blast at the instructional sessions.

“He loves it,” said his dad Brian. “He looks forward to it every Sunday morning. He’s up early ready to go.”

Brian grew up in northern Indiana, and he and his wife Julie recently moved here from Cleveland. They admitted they don’t know much about hockey, and that Trent’s been teaching them the rules when they play in the basement at their home.

“It’s exposure for him. He’s out doing a new sport we don’t know anything about that he’s picked up just being in the neighborhood and being with the kids that he’s started to become friends with,” Julie said. “It was nice to sign him up in November and be selected and get all the gear. It was generous and very exciting.”

That camaraderie is part of what Crosby hopes the kids take away from this experience.

“That’s the best thing you can hear, is just that they enjoy themselves,” Crosby said. “And if they stick with it, great. If they don’t, they’re able to say they tried it and were introduced to it. Regardless, they hopefully just enjoy their time while they’re in it.”

This past summer, the Pens captain held the inaugural Sidney Crosby Hockey School in his hometown of Nova Scotia at the rink he grew up playing in (where he spent the entire week on the ice with the kids). Back then, Crosby looked up to local products Cam Russell and Don McLean, recalling how excited he was whenever he got the chance to see those guys up close.

Now, Crosby is paying it forward.

“You want to be able to help out or give back in any way you can,” Crosby said. “I had guys locally growing up that I looked up to, and I think just to be here in the city and for kids to have a close look at the team, be able to meet guys, to be involved in hockey, a sport that’s so special to us as players and the team, I think you’re just happy to share that.

"Everyone has different things they’re involved in individually on the team, but this is something that it’s fun to see kids out there on the ice and be involved with them.”

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