In 1992, Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito founded the Tampa Bay Lightning, and, essentially, hockey in the Tampa Bay area.
On Monday, in front of a statue of Esposito on Ford Thunder Alley outside Amalie Arena, the Lightning announced a brand-new initiative to exponentially grow the sport locally at the grassroots level.
With 350 children from area Boys and Girls Clubs and local YMCA’s playing pick-up hockey on four street rinks and Esposito’s statue scouting the action for the next Steven Stamkos or Tyler Johnson serving as a backdrop, Lightning chairman and governor Jeff Vinik laid out the team’s $6 million, five-year Build the Thunder campaign aimed at expanding the game regionally and teaching life skills to area youth.
The program has five components: distributing 100,000 street hockey sticks and balls to third through fifth graders; offering 10,000 hours of instruction for players and coaches; increasing the number of local youth registered with USA Hockey by 1,000; identifying 100 at-risk youth and utilizing Lightning players, coaches and alumni as mentors; and establishing 10 brand-new junior varsity hockey programs for aspiring high school players.
“This is (an)…effort to teach kids the game of hockey throughout the Tampa Bay region, throughout the five counties [Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Manatee], to coach them, to set up leagues, etc., to teach them life skills and to reach underprivileged kids,” Vinik said amid the roar of kids in the background chasing a bright orange ball and taking turns firing slap shots, their enthusiasm unflagging.
Lightning executive director of community hockey development Jay Feaster, the architect of Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup winner (2004) as the team’s general manager from 2002-08, highlighted the Future Goals program the Lightning rolled out last year as an example of the impact Build the Thunder can have on the local community. During Future Goals’ launch event at Centennial Middle School in Dade City, the Lightning’s community hockey team worked in the computer lab with students on STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) curriculum while simultaneously teaching street hockey all day in the school’s gym classes.
A week following the visit, Centennial principal Rick Saylor emailed Feaster to tell him a handful of students asked to start an after-school hockey program, and the school’s gym teachers used the set of street hockey gear the Lightning donated to teach the sport to their classes.
“That was the impact of one visit to one school making one equipment donation,” said Feaster, who will direct the Build the Thunder program. “Imagine now being able to donate to 500 schools and distribute 100,000 street hockey sticks and balls.”
After the new program’s announcement, a handful of Lightning players made their way to the makeshift rinks to help direct the action. Among those jumping in was All-Star center Tyler Johnson, who said he has a program for local youth set up in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., and was excited to start a similar initiative for the kids of the bay area.
“When you’re growing up, it’s so much easier for you to go outside and throw a football or baseball and kind of get into those sports,” Johnson said. “Not too many people really just have hockey sticks lying around, so it’s awesome to be able to have the kids play a little bit, even if it’s on a street hockey rink. You’ve got to start somewhere. It’s a great initiative, and I’m pretty proud to be a part of it.”
Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison remembers his first experience meeting and interacting with professional hockey players. As an eight year old growing up in White Rock, British Columbia, just south of Vancouver along the U.S.-Canadian border, Garrison got to play a scrimmage game with other local youths during intermission of a Canucks game.
He can recall looking up at the professionals in awe.
He can also remember squandering a chance to score in the game, a memory that sticks with him to this day.
“I missed on a breakaway,” Garrison lamented. “I know that for sure.”
Garrison said being in the presence of professional athletes at a young age helped fuel his desire to become one.
“It’s an experience to this day that I’ll remember,” he said. “When you’re around those pros as a kid, I think it does a lot for just the way you want to improve at the sport and want to participate at the sport, and it’s kind of just that experience that helps you develop. Hopefully, we’re able to do that out here and give kids a little hope and get them familiar with hockey.”
Thomas Burton, an 11 year old from Plant City Boys and Girls Club, stood tall in net for his team while taking part in the action, despite being weighed down by heavy goalie equipment he had never worn before and facing shots from all three members of the Lightning’s famed Triplets line of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Burton sprinted off after his turn on the rink was over to get autographs from his new heroes, proudly telling anyone within earshot how he didn’t give up a goal, recording his first unofficial shutout.
“I was scared at first because the ball was coming at me so fast. I didn’t know it would be that fast,” Burton said. “But then I got used to it and just started reacting.
“It was a lot of fun.”
The Lightning are hoping many more bay area children will have similar experiences through the Build the Thunder campaign.
And just maybe, the program will produce the first National Hockey League player from Tampa.