After planting the seeds of hockey through their successful "Summer Cats" floorball program, the Florida Panthers are now helping local Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County take their first steps onto the ice.
In 2016, the Panthers launched their floorball program at local clubs by donating equipment and educating coaches on how to teach the sport to children. Near the end of each summer, Boys & Girls Club members were also invited to BB&T Center to compete in a fun floorball tournament.
But after three years of floorball, the Panthers believed it was time for them to try the real thing.
Starting in early July, the team began hosting a special five-week "Learn to Skate" program for members of local Boys & Girls Clubs. In order to accommodate as many members as possible, the sessions were divided between two ice rinks: The Rink on the Beach and Panthers IceDen.
"They're learning from the beginning," Panthers Director of Community Relations John Colombo said. "We're getting them out there, teaching them how to glide, how to stop how to turn. A lot of them have never been on the ice. They're out here today with coaches. Hopefully we're turning them into future skaters and future hockey players. This is the next step in our programming."
At the end of program, the Panthers will send each participant home with a free pair of skates.
"They actually get to take something home to have and keep," Colombo said. "Hopefully they take pride in owning them and begin to grow as hockey players… I think the commitment to create new hockey players starts at the top with our ownership and President & CEO Matt Caldwell. They really focus on growing the game and give the greenlight on these initiatives."
Helping these children make the often-uneasy transition from the floor to the ice are groups of certified coaches like Viktoria Chiappa, who teaches figure skating at The Rink on the Beach.
"The best thing that I've found to do is to hold their hands," Chiappa said. "There's something about a human versus the wall that's very comforting. If you take two kids on each hand, they'll also have camaraderie with one another. It's that and getting them used to wearing skates."
For most children, getting used to wearing skates is half the battle. "The skates themselves are very heavy and awkward feeling," Chiappa said. "I equate them to pointe shoes a lot of the time. Your foot is squished and it's not very comfortable. So if you can get them to feel comfortable in their skates, they'll start to feel more comfortable on the ice."
Chiappa said she was impressed with the progress of her students after just two weeks.
"I was pretty floored with it," Chiappa said. "Last week, we had probably 80 percent of them hugging the wall. [The second week] we made some pretty serious strides. We had kids going backwards."
Overall, nine Boys & Girls Clubs from Broward County are participating in the free program.
"It's a great opportunity," Chris Cleveland, who works as the Health & Fitness Coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County's Thomas D. Stephanis Unit. "We started last week, and it was amazing. At my club, I have more kids here today than I had last week. I love it, seeing the kids coming out for the first time. Some of them fell, but some already know how to ice skate. Some of these kids just know about basketball and football. Ice skating is something else we really want to teach them. Thank you to the Florida Panthers for helping us do that."