Damen McDermott had a day this week that was, by any measure, a once-in-a-childhood treat.
Just nine years old, the boy was one of 34 underprivileged Pittsburgh-area children who took part in the Penguins' Bundle Up Shopping Day. The annual affair is one of the National Hockey League club's most venerable charitable projects and a fun, personal twist on more typical professional sport charity events -- golf tournaments, merchandise auctions and hospital visits.
Each autumn for more than 15 years, when the pretty and prodigious foliage of Allegheny County begins bursting with orange and red, Penguins players make a visit to a local mall, meeting up with children aged 5 to 12 who have been selected by the Salvation Army to go shopping for winter coats and boots, hats and mittens.
The charity donates $100 (U.S.) for each child; the players donate their time. Sometimes toys slip in among the gloves and galoshes.
And if the tab ends up over the limit, as it has in the past, the players dig into their wallets to make up the difference. Former Penguin defenceman Darius Kasparaitis once spent hundreds of dollars on a little boy who kept finding his way to the toy department.
Football's Pittsburgh Steelers and, most years, baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates participate in separate Salvation Army shopping excursions around this time each fall; it is one of the charity's favourite events for its extended interaction between athletes and children.
"It really is a big deal," Salvation Army project director Melissa Fereday said. "These are kids who wouldn't be getting winter clothes if it weren't for this. And not only are they getting new coats, but they get to have a professional athlete come along and help them pick it out. They're like, 'Wow!'
"Pittsburgh is a sports town. For a lot of families, sports are their pastime. These kids know who they are getting to spend time with. When the Steelers were here last week, every kid came in yelling, 'I want the Bus! I want the Bus!" (Jerome Bettis, the Steelers squarely built and popular running back, is known as the Bus.)
This week, in a back room in Sears at a mall just outside Pittsburgh, the children chanted "Let's Go Pens! Let's Go Pens!" before the hockey players arrived. The whole team, except captain and owner Mario Lemieux, who had another charity event, and Maxime Talbot and Konstantine Koltsov, who had doctor's appointments, attended.
And so after a lunch of Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets, waffle fries and lemonade, with the players in the neighbouring room, kids were called, one at a time, and paired with a Penguin for their shopping trip.
John LeClair and Jocelyn Thibault, Ryan Malone and Mark Recchi, each took his child's hand and headed into the store. Who would get Sidney Crosby, arguably the most popular Penguin?
On a day when every child felt lucky, Damen McDermott, a fourth-grader at Fawn Elementary School in Natrona Heights, drew the Penguins star centre, not much older than a kid himself.
What would it be like to be nine years old and a big hockey fan and get excused from school to spend an afternoon hanging out with the Penguins' No. 1 draft pick? What would it be like to have him help you pick out some clothes, give them his approval, lug them around the store while you search for more and then pay for any extra over and above $100?
Damen was delighted and excited, but he was not star struck. Moments after meeting Mr. Crosby, as they headed into the store to start their search for outerwear, Damen gazed up at his new friend and said: "So, you're with the Penguins? You guys aren't doing so good."
Mr. Crosby, the play-making centre on the 0-2-4 team, began to laugh.
"You're right," he said. "What do you think we should do?"
"You've got to play better," Damen said earnestly.
"Yes," Mr. Crosby said. "You are right about that."
They headed to the boot section, Damen taking two strides to Mr. Crosby's one. Once before rows of boxes they both looked confused before Mr. Crosby exclaimed: "These are girl boots! You don't want those."
And off they went in search of more suitable footwear for the lanky, blond, blue-eyed boy who plays football and baseball and is just dying to start playing hockey.
When they finally found a pair Mr. Crosby deemed "a good style," Damen pulled them on to check the fit. A size 6, they left him room to grow.
Damen instructed Mr. Crosby to tie them up in double knots, "because my mom likes it that way," and the rookie complied.
"They look good with your jeans," Mr. Crosby said.
It was all Damen needed to hear. He liked them so much he wouldn't take them off, wearing them around the store instead. As they went in search of a coat, one little girl shouted across the aisle at Damen, "Nice boots!" and the little boy looked up proudly at Mr. Crosby, his pal and newfound fashion adviser.
"Do you want a pink coat?" Mr. Crosby teased Damen.
"No way!" he said, and made a beeline to the Pittsburgh Steelers coats and tugged at one.
What? No Penguins merchandise? Mr. Crosby suggested they look around.
Damen settled on a royal blue ski jacket, a little roomy to accommodate sweaters, on Mr. Crosby's advice. He showed Damen how to work the Velcro fasteners. Then they went to look for mittens and a hat.
And that's when things got educational.
At first Damen selected a pair of wool gloves, but Mr. Crosby, on the other side of the display, found some ski gloves.
"These are better for snowballs!" he said.
Damen was sold.
"Now what about a tuque?" Mr. Crosby said.
"A what?" Damen said, screwing up his face in disbelief. "What the heck's a too-k?"
"You know, a tuque -- a winter hat," the Canadian explained, looking down at the puzzled boy and dangling the wool hat in front of him. "What else would you call it?"
"A tossle cap,' Damen said seriously. "They're called tossle caps."
A tuque in Cole Harbour, N.S., is a tossle cap in Pittsburgh. So with the winter hat in hand, the pair made their way to the cash register.
When Mr. Crosby realized they still had some room under the Salvation Army price cap, he and Damen scampered back into the aisles to get something else. They emerged with a Ben Roethlisberger shirt. (Mr. Roethlisberger is the Steelers star quarterback.)
Mr. Crosby has participated in a number of charity events over the past several years.
"But I've never done anything like this. This was really fun and different. Sometimes people forget there are others out there who aren't so fortunate. Having a winter jacket shouldn't be a luxury. People take so much for granted, so it's nice to be able to help these kids. To see how happy it made them is amazing."
Before they parted ways, Damen asked Mr. Crosby to pose with him for a photograph and sign his school notebook. On a full page in big hand the rookie wrote: "To Damen, All the best, Sidney Crosby, 87. Remember 'tuque.' "
"He was nice," Damen said of his new friend. "He has a Canadian accent. And I think he needs a haircut. But he taught me a new word. It's kind of a funny word. I might have to run it past my English teacher."
Clothes for winter with a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey thrown in: $98.27. Learning the word tuque from Sidney Crosby: Priceless.
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