Ice Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning Partner to Impact Pensacola Area School Children

Ice Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning Partner to Impact Pensacola Area School Children

By: Bill Vilona, Contributing Writer for the Pensacola Ice Flyers

Clutching a plastic, street hockey stick, while wearing a big smile, Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris stood in the middle of youthful joy.

Music blared from a nearby boombox, as third-grade schoolchildren from Pensacola’s Cordova Park Elementary School were getting an introduction to a sport most had never played.

“The more we can reach out to these kids and teach them about the game of hockey the better it is,” Harris said as he helped with the event.

That’s also been the goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The NHL team’s “Build The Thunder” initiative, which made its third annual stop this month in our area, has been a staple community service project in the Lightning’s various outreach programs.

The Lightning-Ice Flyers partnership reached 10 schools on the visits through Escambia and Santa Rosa County. The partnership has widened hockey awareness to thousands of school children.

“We just wanted to introduce them to something they may have not done before,” said Josh Dreith, a member of the Lightning front office and manager of youth and street hockey program.

He looked out over the scene at Cordova Elementary. There were different shifts of kids from the school throughout the day spending an hour learning hockey.

The Lightning staff was joined on this day by Ice Flyers players Eddie Matsushima, Joe Drapluk and Tyler Andrews. The players wore their game jerseys and got inside the makeshift street hockey rink to help the kids learn the game.

“You can see and hear how much fun it is,” Dreith said. “Hockey is a fun sport. We are very committed to growing the sport all across Florida. We love to show some love to the Pensacola area, because there are a lot of interested kids is this area.

“They love their Ice Flyers, too. That’s great to see. We really appreciate the Ice Flyers and Greg and what they have done to help grow the game of hockey.”

In four years, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s “Build The Thunder” program has reached more than 750 schools in Florida, including the ones throughout the Escambia-Santa Rosa County region who signed up. Dreith said approximately 200 schools will be visited this year.

“For them to have this program to begin with is amazing,” Harris said. “And it just helps us out as well as a professional team. We have been partner for years, so it has been great. It’s really amazing to see they are not just thinking of the Tampa area… they are looking across the state.”

Most of the schools the Lightning visit are within two hours. In this case, however, a group of 10 staff members, including Dreith, traveled from Tampa to Pensacola to spend the entire week. The Lightning did the same thing the past two years.

It is a full week commitment by the Lightning —  a franchise located nearly 500 miles away.

“I find the kids are just as excited as the kids in Tampa,” Dreith said.

At each stop, the Lightning supply new street hockey sticks and balls and T-shirts, which the kids can keep. The Ice Flyers provided a free ticket to last weekend’s home games against the Huntsville Havoc at the Pensacola Bay Center.

“Being from Alaska, we naturally have ice outside during the winter, but these (children) don’t have that,” said Andrews, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska. “We didn’t have a program like this where we bring all the free stuff here for the kids. It’s pretty special for the Lightning to do that.”

The Ice Flyers have worked the Lightning’s learn the sport program around a home weekend these three years.  During these visits, it’s estimated the Lightning have reached between 3,500-4,000 area school kids to learn hockey.

“What I like about the program is they are introducing our youth to a sport they are not traditionally accustomed to,” said Casandra Waller, curriculum specialist for physical education, health and wellness for Escambia County schools.

“They (Lightning) leave behind about $1500-$1700 worth of equipment. So all of our PE teachers can continue on with teaching the sport, which directly aligns with our state standards.

“I think the kids have a good awareness that hockey is in our community, but the opportunity for them to participate, I don’t think they have the exposure to that. The Ice Flyers players being here helps create that local community connection as well.”

The Lightning program just won a Florida community service award.

“Sports teaches you life skills that other areas will not teach you,” Waller said. “This kind of program motivates them and inspires them. It excites them.”