SUNRISE, Fla. - As part of their continued commitment to youth hockey and community outreach initiatives, the Florida Panthers partnered with JetBlue to brighten the day of a few new hockey fans with a special street hockey clinic at the BB&T Center on Monday.
"We're happy to be out here supporting these kids," said JetBlue's Southeast Regional Marketing Manager Nicky Tesser, who was joined by roughly 15 volunteers at the event. "Like the Panthers, JetBlue believes in giving back to the community in which we serve."
JetBlue, the organization's official airline partner, has been working hand-in-hand with the Panthers for several years in an effort to grow youth hockey both locally and abroad, most recently sponsoring a pair of overseas clinics in the Dominican Republic (2015).
"I think it's great," Panthers Director of Community Relations John Colombo said of the clinic. "It gives us a chance to give back to the community. JetBlue has always been a great partner with us involving our street hockey clinics overseas, so it's great to be able to do one here locally and put some sticks in kids hands."
With the sun shining and a cool breeze in the air, children from the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County and S.O.S. Children's Villages descended upon the JetBlue Tarmac outside of the BB&T Center, eager to put on a jersey and get their hands on a hockey stick - a first-time experience for many in attendance.
"With the Panthers help, we can help more kids," said Ronald Lewis, who serves as Club Director for the Lester H. White Boys & Girls Club. "The kids enjoy playing hockey. The Panthers also gave us equipment for the kids so play with, so it's a big pleasure to be partners with them.
"This is very important for the kids. They don't get a chance to go to Panthers games, but then you can bring us out here and let the kids play at a real arena like this. It's awesome. We really appreciate it."
With three street hockey rinks set up outside of the arena, the Panthers also called upon three players - Alex Petrovic, Mike Matheson and Greg McKegg -- to serve as the clinic's special guest instructors, leading kids through various drills and offering some helpful tips during the lighthearted scrimmages.
"I think it's cool," Petrovic said. "For people to appreciate the game, they've got to play it. I think all these kids out here are really enjoying themselves. It's a little different than playing soccer, basketball or even baseball, but it's a fun sport and I think they'll all really enjoy it.
"It's really important for the logo and the Panthers to get our name out there in the community. We're going to grow the game and grow the team that way. It's really huge. The more fans we get, the more energetic we get. It's a win-win."
An Edmonton, Alberta native, Petrovic believes that ball hockey is a great way to grow the game in an area like South Florida where ice can sometimes be a little hard to come by.
"Every summer I used to play on a ball hockey team," Petrovic said. "There were big leagues up in Edmonton. It's pretty big up in Canada. It's a lot of fun. It's a little bit different than ice hockey, but it's really fun. I think it's a great way for anyone to learn the game."
As part of the newfound Community Champions Grant Program, the Panthers have previously provided over $50,000 of financial support to both the Boys & Girls Club and S.O.S. Children's Villages, but it's the hands-on events like Monday's street hockey clinic that will likely continue to leave some of the most indelible marks on the community.
"I think when [Panthers owners] Vinnie [Viola] and Doug [Cifu] put this together, I think the biggest thing was a partnership," Columbo said. "A partnership goes both ways. It's not only financial. It's also being able to give an in-kind factor. The pillars of our foundation are kids and youth hockey, so this really hits both points.
"It also gets these kids out to have an experience that they otherwise probably wouldn't have had. For us, growing the game is key, but giving back to these kids and the local community is huge."