In remembrance of the late Ashley Gallant, originator of “Lacing Up,” Matt Paul, Joshua Neal, and, at times, guest writers will hold a week-long email discussion, which will be published on FF Monday mornings. If you have any topics you would like to see us discuss, or if you would like to be a guest in our series, please let us know through the comments section below or on our Contact page, linked at the top of FF.

Matt Paul: Josh, it’s the season of giving, as they say, and this idea certainly hasn’t gone lost for locked out NHL players in Pittsburgh. It was reported Monday morning that a group of Penguins made their way to a local hospital to spread cheer to children who could use a little (and in many cases, a lot). We’re used to seeing players give back during the season, usually at the behest of the team, but this gesture makes me wonder if the players don’t have a say in wanting to get out and give back to those less fortunate.

Is it just me, Josh, or do hockey players give the appearance of being more genuine and humble? And, to extend that question, do those who wear the black and gold of the Penguins tend to go above and beyond those of other teams?

Joshua Neal: I think one of the things I’ve always liked about hockey is the fact that the players seem more like real people than some of the overblown personalities in other sports. It’s things like this that the Penguins do, not just individually, but as a team, that help solidify that notion. I know that the Penguins do have an extensive community outreach program. These programs extend from helping children in the hospital to equipping children with hockey equipment that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. They provide a venue for the children to play through their efforts as well.

And the best part to me is that these efforts don’t seem to be contrived. Sometimes charity events spend more advertising the fact that they happened rather than focusing on raising the money for the cause. The Penguins efforts (to me at least) seem genuine, and by degrees that makes the players seem more genuine to me. While it’s hard for me to speak on other cities, as I’ve been in some version of Western Pennsylvania for my whole life, I will say that the Penguins seem to have a genuine commitment that goes beyond their team and extends to their community, their city, and their fans.

Especially in a situation like this, in which the players aren’t playing and have no obligation or necessity to promote the Penguins organization/ownership during the lockout, I think this commitment shows through. Matt, do you think that might be what pushed the Penguins’ presence in the community this year above and beyond the norm?

Matt: In a word: yes. But we’ll have to trace the roots back to the late 1980s and 1990s. During this time, current owner and then-player Mario Lemieux underwent a series of life-changing events that saw him spend significant time in hospitals. He personally dealt with significant back problems and a terrifying battle with cancer. And then came what likely was the game changer: complications with the premature birth of his son, Austin. Fortunately, all ended well and Austin is a budding hockey star, but in his name, Mario and wife Nathalie have developed Austin’s Playroom, a designated area in hospitals for siblings of hospitalized children.

Mario, as a player, learned how trying it can be when you are, or worse yet a loved one is, in the hospital. He has since taken the initiative to give back in many ways. So, Josh, yes, this started with a player, who then evolved into an owner. But that owner has taught his players, management, and coaching staff the importance of giving back. Long story short, the players have learned from the best and are now fueling the endeavor without their leader. So that begs the question, Josh, who is the current leader of the pack with lines of communication with the teams cut, and since I think I know the answer, let me also ask if you feel this player has learned from Lemieux or if he simply had this in him from the start?

Josh: Matt, you’re wise to point out that an owner very well known for his own philanthropic efforts has in large part been responsible for such a great sense of giving that seems to become contagious once a player puts on the Penguins sweater. In an era where events like this reach the public eye much more easily, with media outlets like Twitter and Facebook. I had mentioned a sense of things feeling contrived, and I think part of that is attributable to these instant media platforms that spread things exponentially faster than traditional forms. However, the Penguins themselves as well as the media outlets that they choose to operate through do an excellent job of keeping the true purpose at hand.

To your question, I’d have to say that if I were a betting man I think you’re talking about the captain, Mr. Crosby. I’d have to agree that Lemieux has had influences on him in many aspects of his career – extending pretty blatantly to his life outside of hockey as well. I think the fact that no matter whether the player is new or tenured, old or young, they seem to be willing and active participants. That speaks first to Lemieux’s mentorship of Crosby off the ice, as well as Crosby’s great leadership with his teammates even outside the confines of the locker room. Sid seems like the kind of guy who would have this kind of thing in his heart, but I think Lemieux’s relationship with him has helped put it into action.

Matt: You’re right, Josh. Crosby definitely has the persona of someone who has a sense of what is right and what is wrong and that those in a position to give back to the community should do so. He’s a genuinely good person who has otherworldly skills on the ice. It’s a shame there aren’t more professional athletes that think the way he does. Fortunately for us, though, we live in a hockey market of a team that stands for what is right with professional sports.

Josh, you and I — and I know a good many members of our readership, as well — live in the Johnstown/Altoona region, and what shocks me is that the Penguins have reached out to this area, as well. I recently learned that a co-worker’s young son had been accepted into a Penguin-sponsored hockey camp in Ebensburg, PA. Mapquest tells me that’s 71.72 miles from Consol Energy Center. So, right off the bat, I’m impressed. To reach out to communities well outside of the city’s limits is what I call going above and beyond. But what’s even more amazing? The team isn’t just sponsoring a hockey camp, it’s providing each and every player with free equipment from head to toe. And let’s be clear, Ebensburg is just one of MANY locations hosting such camps. Long story short, the Penguins have organized a Western Pennsylvania centric hockey camp that undoubtedly will provide hundreds of kids — many of whom might not have such a chance without the free equipment — with an opportunity to learn to play hockey.

Let’s make no mistake about it, they’re not just helping these kids for the duration of the camp, they’re helping to generate a longstanding love for the game of hockey that will aid in keeping these kids physically active, healthy, and out of trouble. And, in some cases, I’m sure, help them learn a game that could earn them a college scholarship, or better yet, a professional paycheck. And let’s not forget — it’s pure fun, as well. Any final words, Josh?

Josh: I’m a big time fan of when athletes reach out to their community, and I think that this is a perfect time of year to recognize it. Being from where we are in the state, we’re far enough away from the city that the fact the Penguins would come this far out is incredibly impressive. There are athletes in other sports who embody the giving nature of the season as well – Troy Polamalu is an incredibly well respected community outreach figure, and LaMarr Woodley even paifor his alma mater high school to be able to have a football program this year with no expense for the players’ equipment. However, I do think there’s something to be said for the way that the Penguins seem to consistently put together a team effort in addition to each player’s individual interests and charities.

As we’ve both mentioned, the holiday season is upon us, and this is a great time to be thankful for what we have, and also to recognize what we can do for each other. It’s motivating and inspiring to see that professional athletes take time to give back, and I think it moves us to do similar things with our time. In a time where hockey looks a lot more like business than a game, this is one way in which we realize that there are other things out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love hockey, but there are more important things out there. I’m glad to see that I follow a team who seems to have their priorities in order, even in the midst of a labor dispute.