Tampa Bay Lightning Street Team visits Nolan Middle School to introduce students to hockey.
Da’Niya King, a R. Dan Nolan Middle School sixth grader, focused on the small ball in front of her as she maneuvered it through a set of cones with her hockey stick.
King, who had never played hockey before Sept. 25, when the Tampa Bay Lightning Street Team came to Nolan Middle School, was nervous before the drill began.
“I was thinking: ‘Am I going to get hurt? Is someone going to whack me?’” she said.
Dozens of students were introduced to hockey for the first time during the Street Team’s visit while others who have experience playing the sport enjoyed doing something out of the ordinary for gym class.
“We’re trying to grow the game and make sure they fall in love with playing hockey,” said Mathieu Garon, the assistant hockey director for community hockey for the Lightning. “If they become fans or a hockey player, that’s our goal.”
At the end of the day, students went home with autographs, a ticket voucher for a Lightning game, and a ball and hockey stick to use at home or at the new rink in Lakewood Ranch Park built by the Lightning.
The outdoor rink officially opened Aug. 19 and is available for free play at any time.
“We’re able to continue to offer opportunities for kids to play beyond the time we come to visit the school,” said Josh Dreith, community hockey manager for the Lightning. “We come to the school with alumni and staff and draw up a lot of interest. When we leave, the students are pumped and excited, and now they have a place to continue to play hockey.”
The rink will offer clinics starting in October and leagues starting in January.
Visiting the schools and having the rink, which is the first of 10 rinks the organization is building in the Tampa Bay area, are ways for the Lightning to build its fan base as well.
“It’s giving a new and fresh opportunity for kids and also connecting them to a sport that we as an organization believes gives them a lot of life lessons,” Dreith said. “It connects us to them as well. There’s a lot of Lightning fans in that area. [Building the rink] is showing love for an area where a ton of our fans travel to games from.”
All the equipment — including hockey sticks, balls, goals and jerseys — the Lightning brought with them to Nolan Middle School was given to the school, so students could play during class in the future.
“Anything relatively new to them, they’re excited,” said Brad Claussen, the physical education teacher who arranged for the Lightning to come to the school. “Kids have different skill sets, and if they have the opportunity to try different things, hopefully they’ll find some sort of activity they love.”
Claussen said the gym classes don’t get many opportunities to have activities out of the normal PE activities, so he wanted to find an outside program to come to the school to work with the kids.
“I wanted to mix things up and keep them interested,” he said. “I like just seeing the kids get excited about something that’s out of the routine. They get fired up.”
Garon said some students who were new to hockey were scared to try at first, but once they started playing, it was all smiles.