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Penguins, players keep true to spirit of giving

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 6:22 p.m.
Marc-André Fleury (left) and Sidney Crosby (middle) talk with Jeremy Coast, 15 of Franklin, and a patient at Children's Hospital in Lawrencville when the Penguins players conducted their annual Children’s Hospital visit on Monday, Dec.10, 2012. This year, the players coordinated the event on their own because of the NHL lockout. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, helps Mykel Knight, front, 7, of Carnegie find the right size winter coat with Diendre Blair, center, 10, of Carnegie, at Dick's Sporting Goods in Cranberry as a part of the team's annual 'Project Bundle-Up' initiative on Tuesday, December 11, 2012. The Penguins charity plans have been affected by the NHL lockout, as administrators and coaches are not supposed to talk with players. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

At no point did this three-month labor dispute between NHL owners and players seem sillier than this past week.

Coach Dan Bylsma and his staff did not accompany nine Penguins players Monday to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville for the team's annual visit.

A day later, star center Evgeni Malkin remained in Russia rather than help Penguins executives and alumni take children shopping for winter clothes in Cranberry.

The Penguins Pond at Station Square opened to public skating Friday — without an actual Penguins player skating alongside diehard fans.

“The lockout has made for a lot of bad stories,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “The fact that teams and players have to do this stuff on their own is probably up there for the worst, especially this time of year.”

The NHL lockout, now in its 92nd day, prohibits players and team employees from having unauthorized contact until the league and union agree on a new labor pact.

So while commitment to community remains a priority for the team and players, they must go at it separately.

Keeping with tradition

There is an ongoing fight between owners and players over oft-changing issues from revenue divide to contracting rights.

Jeremy Coast, of Franklin, faces a different fight.

“AML leukemia, but I'm winning,” Coast, 15, said Monday.

His latest round of radiation should end around February, he said. By spring, he hopes to be back on his beloved dirt bike.

Coast is a fearless rider, despite two concussions.

“He might have brought that up,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said, laughing. “I could have told him some stories.”

Crosby admitted he had not laughed much between Monday and the three days prior following the breaking of negotiations in New York City.

Crosby has visited patients at Children's Hospital each of the eight Decembers he has spent in Pittsburgh. A few weeks ago he was unsure whether the tradition would continue.

Penguins employees always set up the holiday hospital visit, but because there is no contact allowed between players and team personnel, players were left to handle arrangements themselves.

“We absolutely didn't expect the visit to happen this year, and regrettably so because the kids look forward to it so much,” said Ashley Van Alen, special events coordinator at Children's Hospital.

Matt Cooke, a famously reformed NHL bad guy, has used his free time during the lockout to make near-weekly visits to Children's Hospital. He told Van Alen that players wanted to keep with the tradition of the holiday visit.

With help from Frank Buonomo, a former Penguins employee, Cooke and Van Alen made sure 105 patients were visited Monday. Each child spent about 10 minutes with a group of players and received a Build-A-Bear stuffed penguin.

Buonomo declined comment other than to praise players for their desire to help. He witnessed the same willingness from players who participated in an Atlantic City, N.J., charity hockey game that benefited victims of Superstorm Sandy. That game raised more than $500,000 and included James Neal of the Penguins and former Penguins Brent Johnson and Arron Asham.

Finding a way

Bylsma said he was “thrilled to see” players had visited Children's Hospital.

He spent Thursday there playing video games with patients. His summer hockey school, held at Consol Energy Center for the first time, raised $19,900 that was donated to the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.

“It's important to have priorities in life,” Bylsma said. “When you spend time with families, the kids, it does give you a pause for the people that may not have the best situations going in their life.”

From their coach to majority co-owner Mario Lemieux, the Penguins take pride in their charitable outreach initiatives.

That has not changed during the lockout, even though the franchise has not been able to trot out players for the opening of a dek hockey rink in Banksville or the outdoor public ice rink in Station Square.

The franchise's biggest sponsors have continued to back charitable endeavors. Project Power Play, which is providing the region with 12 outdoor deks over a four-year span, is a joint effort of Highmark and the Penguins Foundation. The Penguins Pond is sponsored by 84 Lumber.

Dick's Sporting Goods was behind the Project Bundle-Up shopping spree for 25 Carnegie Elementary students Tuesday.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse joked that he was a “fill-in” for Malkin, the favorite player of best friends Dominick Thomas and Cayden Jenner, both 11. Morehouse spent nearly an hour with Thomas and Jenner, advising them on winter coats, caps, gloves and boots. Morehouse's advice: Go for the expensive gloves because they hold up better in snowball battles.

Thomas's coat, cap, gloves and boots totaled nearly $500.

Players normally would have taken students shopping or attended dek and rink openings.

“There are things we are used to doing with the team that we just see as annual things, things that we're really happy to be a part of,” Crosby said. “It's great to see that everyone's still involved, wants to keep doing it.”

Crosby said he and the Penguins have “kind of in a roundabout way tried to make work” their joint-effort Little Penguins program that provides equipment to youth hockey players.

“Everyone, whether us or the team, wants to continue to help, to be part of the community,” he said. “That doesn't change because there's a lockout.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-380-5635.

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