By Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter
Duane and Shaney Boles have spent the last few days at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh with their 11-year-old son, Ryder.
As they were waiting to be discharged on Wednesday afternoon, a hospital worker entered the room and informed them that they would have to wait just a little bit longer - because Penguins players would be stopping by as part of their annual holiday visit.
As soon as Shaney heard the news, she couldn't help it. She started to cry.
"I cried because he's been a frequent flier here at Children's since he was 15 months, honestly," Shaney said of Ryder. "It's been pretty much once a month for his whole life. He's really just a pretty tough kid. He has a heart condition and some vertigo and he gets pretty sick, so that's why he has to come in for fluids and maintenance.
"And honestly, he's a huge Pens fan. As soon as they said that, I just knew right away he would be so excited if they came walking through the room."
Ryder is unable to play contact sports because of his health, so he has never gotten the chance to play hockey. But he absolutely loves to watch hockey, and to see his favorite player, Sidney Crosby, from his favorite team, coming through the door was overwhelming in the best way.
"I'm really happy," smiled Ryder, who hopes to sing the national anthem before a Penguins game someday. "I'm super excited I got to meet the players that I've been watching forever. I've been watching Sidney Crosby on the ice since I was two years old. It was just super awesome."
Both Ryder and Shaney were overcome with emotion after such a special visit, sitting on the bed together and crying tears of joy when the players left.
"It just meant more than they really know," Shaney said. "They were so sweet. As a mom and a dad, we see him go through all this stuff. But for them to walk in there, it was just really, really special to us. We appreciated it so much."
The reaction of Ryder and his family was incredibly heartwarming, as was the reaction of Yaheim Young and his parents.
To Yaheim's delight, it was an Amazon Fire tablet. "Sweet! Cool! Thank you!" exclaimed Yaheim, who got up and hugged each and every player. The players' goal is to put smiles on the kids' faces, but Crosby had the biggest one after that interaction, who said to Yaheim's parents, "Glad he liked it! What a great reaction."
"We enjoy coming here and I think just to see the smiles on the kids' faces, see their reactions - you could see the reaction of a couple kids that opened the gifts there, that says it all," Crosby said. "That's why we're here."
Phil Kessel also received a priceless reaction from a child who has been wanting to meet him for a while now.
A few years ago, Chelsey Stokes took her son Cooper to his first Penguins game and told him he could pick out one thing from the souvenir calendar. He picked out a Lego figure of Phil Kessel, and ever since then, Cooper has been obsessed with anything Phil Kessel.
Cooper, who is waiting for a multi-organ transplant, turned 8 years old in October. Chelsey said all he wanted for his birthday was a Kessel jersey and "the real Phil Kessel." Chelsey laughed and told him that wouldn't be possible. But they learned about a week ago that Cooper's wish might actually become a reality, and Chelsey couldn't be more grateful that it did.
"This is amazing," Chelsey said. "I didn't actually think that this would happen in a lifetime. It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I've been able to take him to games and he's been able to see him from the seats, but this is a whole new surreal thing for him and I'm super blessed and thankful that this was able to happen."
Chelsey said that on Tuesday night, Cooper was practicing what he was going to do when he first saw Kessel, and ultimately decided he would run up and give him a hug. And that's exactly what Cooper did when Kessel arrived. Wearing his No. 81 sweater with the rolling backpack that contains all of his IV fluids in tow, Cooper dashed over to Kessel and threw his arms around his legs.
The two of them became fast friends, playing in the Lemieux Sibling Center for over half an hour before Kessel departed to visit other patients at the hospital.
"I heard he wanted to meet me or whatever, and that's awesome," Kessel said. "I'm happy I could be here and meet him and have a good day.
"It's great. I love this day. I think we make the kids happy, and I love coming in here and getting to spend time with them. It's a great day."
The players took a photo with each of the kids they visited and their families, but a cool moment happened in infant Simon's room. When asked by his parents if anyone wanted to hold him, Hornqvist obliged, and Simon calmly rested in his arms for the picture. This led to his teammates dubbing Hornqvist as "The Natural."
"It's great, you see those kids smile when you walk in," Hornqvist said. "We give them a present, stay and talk a little bit, take a photo with them. They all love it, and we enjoy it too."
While the Penguins spread holiday cheer around the hospital, equipped with Santa hats and presents, an abundance of smiles decked the halls.
One of those smiles was courtesy of six-year-old Aiden. Aiden let out an enormous smile when the time came for a picture, unveiling his missing front teeth. This led to Aiden's mom stating he looks just like a hockey player with his smile, something that Justin Schultz, missing a tooth of his own, agreed to.
While the Penguins handed out signed calendars to each patient they visited, Marcus, 13, received five special signatures on his blood pressure pump. Marcus is a center for the Mt. Lebanon Hornets and expressed how he couldn't wait to tell his teammates about his surprise visitors.
"It was amazing," Marcus said. "I got to see some of my favorite players and get their autographs. It's a dream come true."
Seeing the smile gleaming from Marcus' face after his interaction with the players shows how meaningful and profound the visit is for the children as well as their families.
"It's for sure one of the best events we do through the whole season," Hornqvist said. "It's the holiday season, we make the kids and parents happy, and it's always great to see a smile on their face."