The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of four teams up for the 2022 ESPN Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year, awarded to a club or team that demonstrates how teamwork can create a significant impact on a community or cause.
Recognized for its efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in hockey, Pittsburgh is nominated alongside the Denver Broncos of the NFL, the Miami Heat of the NBA and the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. The winner will be announced during the Sports Humanitarian Awards presented by ESPN, as part of the 2022 ESPYs on Wednesady (8 pm ET; ESPN).
“It’s a tremendous honor. Really, it is,” said Jim Britt, executive director of the franchise’s charitable and community outreach program, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. “Across our organization, there’s a mission statement that we see often. Every employee is handed it [on] their first day here. That mission statement has two goals, those two goals are to win the Stanley Cup and make a positive impact in our community.”
That second goal has recently focused on making the sport more accessible to young players of color.
On June 15, 2021, the Penguins introduced the Willie O’Ree Academy, named after the 2018 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee who broke the NHL’s color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins. The academy provides training, social and mentorship opportunities for Black youth hockey players aged 10-17. Five months later, in conjunction with the city of Pittsburgh, the Penguins opened the Hunt Armory Ice Rink in the Shadyside neighborhood on Nov. 26. It is the first public hockey rink built in the city in almost 25 years, providing free hockey and diversity programming for children.
“Leading into the last few years, we’ve really taken a lot of pride as an organization in trying to push the bar forward in creating more diversity in our game,” Britt said. “We’ve taken a lot of pride in taking that community investment to the next level, I think. Frankly, that has been recognized, echoed.”
A simple suggestion from Tracey McCants Lewis, the Penguins deputy general counsel and director of human resources, inspired the Willie O’Ree Academy.
In a June 2020 meeting with members of the organization, Lewis acknowledged the importance of initiatives that attract new fans of color before noting it is equally vital to remember the Black youth hockey players that have already found the sport but might not play with or be coached by anyone that looks like them.
“It was like a lightbulb, earth-shattering moment for so many of us,” Britt said. “These 35 kids that are in the Willie O’Ree Academy right now are already on travel hockey teams. We’re not going out and finding these kids and bringing them to a hockey rink for the first time.
“They’ve already solved the hurdles that keep most people out of hockey. … These kids have already cleared all of those hurdles and have said, ‘I love hockey.'”
The Penguins Foundation often provides aid throughout the region, most recently distributing $887,060 of grants to 61 local organizations through proceeds from the 50/50 Raffle during the 2021-22 season. Organizations included Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh and Morgantown, the Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh.
That is just the latest part of the Penguins’ community outreach since selecting Mario Lemieux first overall in the 1984 NHL Draft.
Lemieux introduced the Mario Lemieux Foundation in 1993, which is dedicated to cancer research, patient care and supporting families in challenging medical situations. The foundation was created by Lemieux after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, now known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Lemieux is now the co-owner and chairman of the organization.
penguin captain sidney crosby began the “Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey” program in 2008. The program, which has since spread League-wide, is an introductory program for children ages 5-9 and provides free equipment to participants. Logan Cooley, selected third overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2022 NHL Draft, played in the first season of the program in Pittsburgh in 2008-09.
Crosby and long-time teammate, forward Yevgeny Malkinalso purchase a suite for local children to enjoy Pittsburgh’s 41 home games each season.
Since Fenway Sports Group agreed to purchase the Penguins on Nov. 29, 2021, Britt said they have remained “steadfast” in retaining these efforts. I have added that receiving the nomination will also allow the Penguins and its foundation to do even more.
“It’s humbling, I think, to be recognized on a stage this size,” Britt said. “Truly, for the organization, this is a remarkable honor. You’re talking about a couple of hundred teams across North American major league sports. To be one of only four across any sport, I think is a staggering accomplishment for our company. It speaks to how important it is, the work we’re trying to do.”