On Monday, hockey was back at BB&T Center, but not in the traditional sense. Around 500 local area kids took part in the finale of the Florida Panthers Summer Cats youth program, aimed at educating the game of hockey and stressing the importance of teamwork.
From the opening faceoff at 10 a.m., to when three champions were crowned later in the afternoon, the day was filled with smiles, laughs and some impressive skill.
"It's a wonderful experience," said Chief Development Officer for Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County Chris Gentile. "I didn't have the opportunity to do this as a kid, so imagine what these kids are feeling when they come to an arena like this to experience a wonderful day from the Panthers."
Three rinks, set up in the bowl where the ice usually resides during the Panthers season, were divided amongst three different age brackets: Mite (ages 6-8), Squirt (ages 9-10) and Peewee (ages 11-12). Playing in the same area that the professionals do was not an experience that was lost on those taking part in the day's activities.
"It makes the kids feel like pros. Walking in the club [Lexus] you could see the smiles on their faces and having a good time," said Gentile.
"From the kids to the coaches and the volunteers, I can't begin to tell you how special they feel," said Executive Vice President of Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County Matthew J. Organ. "The Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, that's what we like to do. Provide opportunities for our kids with things that they normally wouldn't be exposed to. This will be a memory, no doubt about it, that they will take into their adulthood and talk about for years and years to come."
An avid hockey fan himself, Organ added that the Panthers should be keeping a close eye on some of the kids out on the floor today.
"You might have some future Florida Panthers out there, some all-stars you never know."
One of the main lessons throughout the day was teamwork, from the kids involved in the games to the very partnership between the Panthers and Boys and Girls Clubs.
"It's one of the mantras of Boys & Girls Clubs. Teamwork, giving your all and doing your best and at the end of the day leave everything out on the floor, it is all you could ask for. We are watching wonderful teamwork, there are no individuals. It is a team sport and that's what the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Panthers are all about," said Gentile.
The partnership between the Panthers and Boys and Girls Clubs has given the Panthers a platform to spread the ideals that they are founded upon back into the community.
"We've had a really strong partnership with the Boys and Girls Clubs over the past few years and every year it seems to grow bigger and bigger," said Director of Community Relations and Grassroots Marketing for the Panthers John Colombo. "This year, we not only have the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, but we also have Miami-Dade and West Palm Beach. It's been a huge partnership in making sure the Panthers are a steward in this community and making sure we're doing things the proper way and giving these kids a chance to experience something they otherwise would not have had a chance to."
Colombo also feels that this event allows the Panthers to help spread awareness for child health, another cause that is close to the heart of the Panthers organization.
"Kid's health is extremely important to us, so giving them a chance to go out and compete and give them the supplies they need to go learn these things is huge. For a lot of kids, it is the first time they are going to see hockey, so for them having this experience and create fans but also give back and create health goals is huge for us."
For the future, the sky is the limit for Summer Cats. Matthew Janusz, Youth Hockey Manager for the Panthers, has seen immense growth over the course of the two years this program has been in place, and believes there is even more room to expand.
"We've been working with the Boys and Girls Clubs for a while now and we found a way to give back and introduce this program with them. It started with Broward County, and this year we were lucky to extend into Palm Beach County as well as Miami-Dade," said Janusz. "Now we have the entire tri-county area Boys and Girls Clubs participating in this program. It's one of the few times they can come together as one large Boys and Girls Clubs group and we are excited to provide that opportunity for them."
With the program only in its second year, Janusz adds he has already seen a growth in the excitement from the kids who take part.
"It's really great. Last year was the first time we had the program and everyone was excited. Now the kids really have something to look forward to this year. They knew exactly what they were playing for, which made the games at the Boys and Girls Clubs that much more exciting, that much more intense. It was a real battle from the start."
At the end of the day, three teams were crowned Champions of South Florida. Team Florence DeGeorge for the Mites Division, Team Marti Huizenga for the Squirt Divison, and Team Florence DeGeorge for the PeeWee Division.
More than just a championship, what these kids will take away will be the memory of playing in a NHL arena and learning the importance of working together at a young age.
"Most of these kids didn't grow up watching the game or playing the game so for them to learn, understand and see the game and start playing, you can see the athletic ability come out on the floor," said Gentile. "I think a lot of them will take away this is something they want to do in their future and hopefully they stay in South Florida and we can watch them grow up as the next generation."