On the Penguins team plane, there’s always a deck of cards and a piece of paper and a pen to keep score waiting for Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams and Robert Bortuzzo whenever they board for a road trip.
So they had a lot of practice heading into the first ever Aces & Ice Casino Night presented by Trib Total Media on Thursday night at CONSOL Energy Center, where they and the rest of their teammates served as celebrity dealers.
“Any time you’ve got cards in your hand, you’re counting odds, you’re counting cards, I think that helps,” Bortuzzo said. “I’ve seen blackjack dealing before, I always thought it looked fun and I think we’re doing OK tonight.”
The arena was completely transformed. The videoboard was replaced by dainty chandeliers, the nets were replaced by flashing slot machines and instead of Jeff Jimerson serenading the crowd, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra impersonators crooned. The middle of the floor had three casino pits, with each one containing a roulette table, a craps table and several blackjack tables.
The event replaced the Penguins’ former charity gala dinner – known as Skates & Plates, which they had been doing since 1986 – as the team’s signature event of the season. Proceeds benefit the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, the Mario Lemieux Foundation and the Western PA Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
“We kind of changed gears a little bit,” said Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation president Dave Soltesz. “We tried to make something a little more fun and provide the ability for the people here to interact with more players. So now you have the opportunity.
“Before you had one player at your table. Now you have the opportunity to move around, play cards at one table, roll the dice at another table or play roulette. All the players are accessible to you at this event.”
And the players had a blast. They really got into whatever game they were playing, conversing, laughing, joking and chirping with the people at their tables. Forward Steve Downie was one of the funniest, as it turns out he’s just as intimidating at the blackjack table as he is on the ice. Kidding...kind of.
“When he tells you to hit, you’re going to hit,” laughed one of the patrons at his table, Tim O’Brien. “He’s been great. Super friendly, nice. He’s been super entertaining.”
As Soltesz put it, they were all cards, so to speak.
“It’s great,” Bortuzzo said. “Everyone’s here for a few great causes, we’re sitting down raising money for charity but we’re also having some fun and interacting. You’re just sitting down with people having a conversation about where they’re from, what Pittsburgh means to them and stuff like them. Obviously great causes and we’re happy to do stuff like this.”
“Skates and Plates was good,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “This has been good, though. It’s a nice little change. We get a chance to interact a little bit more. They’re not putting us to work quite as much with serving people (laughs). So it’s been nice.”
Those in attendance absolutely loved the engagement they had with the players throughout the evening.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Eric Hayes. “I think the players seem more relaxed about it then having to sit down at a formal sit-down dinner. I think it’s a great idea. It’s more inviting for the guests. There’s more to get involved with. I think it’s a really, really fun time.”
BEST DEALER While the casino theme was unfamiliar to many of the Penguins – especially the ones who have been here their whole careers – a lot of the guys who came from other teams have experienced it before.
“It’s something I think I did for six years in St. Louis,” said David Perron, who was assigned to one of the craps tables. “We did a similar casino night and I always enjoyed it."
Being a veteran of nights like these, Perron’s dealing skills are up there. Who did he think had the potential to be on his level?
“I hope Sid is good with the amount of people he’s got around,” Perron smiled.
We asked the captain for a self-evaluation of how he fared manning his blackjack table.
“I’ve gotten better,” Crosby said before breaking into a huge grin and admitting, “I started out a little hairy, but it’s gotten better. People are winning a lot, so I think they’re happy.”
They most certainly were.
“He was really great,” said Lauren Helke. “He’s good with the conversation, good with dealing. It was really great. It was a very unique experience. Definitely one I’m going to be carrying with me for a long time.”
“LETANG RULES” “You want to deal?” Kris Letang said to Bortuzzo at one point in the night.
“No, I’m going to go shoot craps,” Bortuzzo replied.
And so Letang continued his version of blackjack dealing, operating by his own standards.
“We enjoyed Letang. We played by ‘Letang rules,’” Sarah O’Brien said.
Somewhere between struggling to count the cards and fumbling the cards in an attempt to shuffle them, Letang developed his own version of blackjack.
“The Letang rules are, I would say, three times out of four you win. I will make it happen depending on the card I get,” Letang said.
The defensemen turned dealer was merciful at the head of the table, which explains the altered rules.
“I felt bad for people, actually,” Letang said. "I can’t even imagine the people in Vegas that really lose real money. I feel bad because I’m just in control.”
Marc-Andre Fleury had a similar mindset over at the opposite end of the arena. During his first few hands of the night, whenever the Penguins goaltender dealt someone a bad card he would casually throw it to the ground and pretend he never drew it; that it didn’t exist.
“Let’s just say he wasn’t very happy about it and he expressed it perfectly in perfect English,” joked Hayes. “He’s just a normal guy, very helpful to the players. Very personable. It was great. Had a wonderful time. My wife is playing. She knows nothing about blackjack and he just helped her out.”
“ASSISTANT ADDER” At one point in the night, Bortuzzo joked to Evgeni Malkin that he thought he might have a new career as a blackjack dealer.
“I always liked math growing up. I think I’m counting the cards pretty quick,” Bortuzzo said. “So I think it’s something I might enjoy.”
However, Bortuzzo’s roommate Beau Bennett wasn’t as adept with the cards – at least, not according to Blake Comeau. The veteran winger decided to come sit next to his younger teammate and supervise him after claiming he saw him struggle.
Speaking of new careers, Comeau even invented a position for himself: “assistant adder.”
“My table was actually just to the left of Beau’s and I saw he was struggling to add the cards up a couple times, so I thought I should probably leave my table and come over and be an assistant adder to him,” Comeau said. “He’s had a few slipups, but for the most part, he’s done pretty good.”
Paul Martin also joined the two of them for a big chunk of the night, which helped transform their pit into one of the liveliest of the evening. However, the defenseman gave Bennett all the credit for drawing so many people in.
“I think we’re all supposed to be technically dealing our own table, but we just sat down to play and bring some people in and it worked so far,” Martin said. “We have a pretty hot table here with a lot of action going on, so it worked. Maybe it could be Beau. It could be him, his good looks and dealing that brought them in.”
While Comeau agreed with Martin, he was more preoccupied with making sure Bennett took care of everyone they had attracted to their table.
“As soon as he came over, the table filled right up,” Comeau said. “Now I’m just trying to make sure Beau doesn’t get in trouble by not paying people when they’ve won because he can’t add.”
Comeau took over for Bennett a couple of times throughout the night to give him a mental and physical break. And after watching him work for a couple of minutes, Crosby thought it was probably for the best that Comeau was doing more supervising instead of working.
“'Comes' loves blackjack, but I don’t know, he doesn’t look too smooth over there right now,” Crosby laughed. “I would have thought he’d be pretty good. He had a bad hand, maybe his wrist was bothering him there for a little bit.”