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by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning
tbl.commentator - Melanie Formentin

When it comes to hockey and health care, it seems that wherever you look in the Tampa Bay area, the Lightning Foundation has left its mark. Large yearly fundraising events such as Glitz & Sticks and John Tortorella's Fishing Tournament make their way into press releases and event calendars, but sometimes it is what is going on behind the scenes that truly makes the Foundation a special entity.

No one knows this better than the education community of Hillsborough County.

Although fans may be familiar with the Foundation's partnerships with area hospitals and healthcare facilities, it has quietly reached out and expanded its work to local schools. The time and energy that is put into schools around Tampa has developed programs that focus on educating kids about the importance of health and teamwork, as well as helping children with specific topics such as English and math.

One of the first ways that the Foundation has become involved in education is to help provide teaching tools to physical education programs in Hillsborough County schools. This ranges from giving books to teachers to involving children in yearly events such as the Reindeer Run.

The Reindeer Run, a yearly running event that debuted during the 2005-06 season, is also a festival that is highlighted by arts and crafts, music and entertainment. Held in December, the races range from five kilometers to one mile and down to children's races, and are surrounded by the festival activities in an attempt to get people out to the arena for an entire morning. They are also designed to teach kids that activity such as running and walking can be fun and rewarding.

"Kids need to get in shape and kids need to be healthier," Foundation Executive Director Nancy Crane said of the Reindeer Run. "This is one way that we're going to emphasize schools training together and kids walking. It doesn't matter if you walk or run. It doesn't matter how fast you go. The fact is that you're moving."

In order for the event to touch school running programs directly, children who participate in the Reindeer Run activities are encouraged to sign up online and do so under their school names for a friendly competition. At the end of the event, the Foundation sees which five schools had the most participants and those schools receive $500 to put back into their physical education programs.

The efforts associated with the Reindeer Run are further expanded through a character education program that is anchored by the John Wooden book, Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success. The book, combined with the Lightning's Winning Ways, is given to every physical education teacher in the county. With the educators trained to teach the books that talk about character, determination and the importance of a good work ethic and preparedness, about 30,000 students are shown how to incorporate these principles into their daily lives.

The Foundation's work with schools doesn't end with physical education, however, as team broadcasters Dave Mishkin and Rick Peckham are both known in the organization for going into the community to teach skills in math and reading to kids of all ages.

Television play-by-play announcer Peckham has a program called Hockey by the Numbers, which is a math-focused endeavor taught to fifth graders in Hillsborough County. Team radio announcer Mishkin participates in two programs aimed at different age levels. With one of the programs, Score with Reading, Mishkin travels to area schools to read to roughly 4,000 children in their early elementary school years.

The second program, Report like the Pros, is aimed at older students to provide them with information about careers and various career opportunities. Not only does it teach students about all the professions that go into making the St. Pete Times Forum run on a regular basis, but a writing contest associated with the program gives students the opportunity to visit the Forum for a game and get published on the team web site.

"The kids have a writing contest and the teachers can pick any topic they want for the kids to write about," explained Crane. "The winner gets to come into our building and 'Report Like a Pro.' [The winner] goes into the locker room, and they can either do an audio or a written report, and if they win the competition their article is put on our web site and they receive a $500 cash donation to use however they would like."

The program, aimed at upper level students such as juniors and seniors, is designed to give students the opportunity to see what it's like to work with a team. The winning prize is then intended to help students pay for things such as college application fees, travel expenses for school visits or tuition.

In addition to the work done by Peckham and Miskin, even the wife of Lightning head coach John Tortorella will be getting into education action this season.

In conjunction with the Foundation, Chris Tortorella has recently completed a book that will be launched before the end of the calendar year. The book will be given to every elementary school in Hillsborough County and Mrs. Tortorella will visit those schools to read to the students. On occasion, Mishkin will also read the book as part of his Score with Reading program.

"Literacy is very important to us, and to [Chris Tortorella] as well, so we want more kids reading and more kids at a young age being read to," Crane said. "We'll go out to different festivals and reading programs at schools and give the books away, but the majority will be sold and the proceeds will go back to her next book."

Crane also explains that proceeds will go back into a fund so that more books can be purchased, especially for children in need.

By taking the principles and values that are typically associated with sports and incorporating them into local education programs, the Foundation aims to educate children and young adults about the importance of school and learning. Using techniques and teaching programs developed by the Foundation, the goal is to reach out beyond the realms of hockey and positively impact the lives of children throughout the Bay area.

Although these endeavors may not always take the form of a yearly event or high-profile fundraiser, fans can be assured that the activities are rumbling on behind the scenes.
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