BROOKSVILLE — Igniting a spark in a child might be as simple as showing them something they thought was untouchable. For Chocachatti Elementary students in grades one through five, that little something was professional hockey. And it was introduced on Sept. 24 through the Tampa Bay Lightning Build the Thunder Program.
In its fifth year, the program travels across Florida, visiting public schools and introducing students to the sport. Students receive basic instruction and even get to play a scrimmage game, coached by a Lightning Alumni player.
Fifth-grade teacher Kimberly McAuly initiated the visit, hoping to give her students the experience before they left for middle school. She expected to include fourth and fifth grades. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning Build the Thunder Program offered the experience to all grades except preschool and kindergarten.
Students were given a quick coaching on proper hockey etiquette, then released in groups to play a scrimmage with Tampa Bay Lightning Alumni member Jassen Cullimore, who offered professional guidance. Each student also took home an autographed photo, a stick, a ball and ticket vouchers for future Lightning games.
“Essentially, we’re just trying to evolve the game of hockey,” said Thayer Alley, a member of the Lightning staff. “A lot of these kids don’t have the ability to play. For a lot of them it’s the first time interacting with the sticks. So it’s really about teaching them the game.“
“If you can get a stick in their hands when they’re young, so they’re able to get the experience of holding it, they learn how to play and how much fun it is,” added colleague Kimberly Levitt. “They get to meet one of our Lightning Alumni, a professional who is super successful. And they are able to get a ticket to a game so they can experience something maybe they wouldn’t have.”
Since its inception, the Tampa Bay Lightning Build the Thunder Program has brought the experience to more than 600 schools throughout Florida.
“Kids, especially in Florida, don’t really get the chance to play the game,” said former NHL player Cullimore. The experience allows them a moment to get up close and personal.
Cullimore was a Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman from 1997 through 2004. At the end of his final season with Tampa Bay, the Lightning took the Stanley Cup in a seven-game series against the Calgary Flames. “There was an explosion of interest in hockey because of it,” Cullimore said. Young people were suddenly interested in learning more about the game.
Since starting the Build the Thunder Program, the number of kids signing up to play has doubled.
What got Cullimore into the game? “I grew up in Canada. I was born with skates,” the native of Simcoe, Ontario, joked, and then gave the real reason. “My older brother was playing, so I started playing. It was just the thing to do.”
In addition to the gear the students took home, the Lightning also donated six sets of goalie equipment with helmets, 80 Lightning jerseys, nets, balls and sticks.
“They are a very generous organization,” said McAuley.
The event made a bigger impact than even McAuley had expected. A few of her own students, who typically aren’t interested in sports, were observed laughing and playing and having a great time.
Abbey McAuley, 10, was already a hockey fan and had an understanding of the game. But she enjoyed getting to actually play. “I thought it was really fun. We don’t really get a chance to play hockey down here,” she said.