BROOKSVILLE — The street hockey ball was skimming across the blacktop every which way as Pine Grove Elementary School fifth-graders attempted to control it with their long, curved sticks. Instructing them was Stanley Cup winner Jassen Cullimore, who was visiting as part of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s community outreach program.
Cullimore was assisted by program ambassadors Morgan Phelps, Zach Wrenn, Anthony Celona and Chris Weisman. Also on hand were Pine Grove physical education teachers Remy Arroyo and Kevin Seroski.
The idea, Arroyo explained, was to "grow the game of hockey in the Tampa Bay area by providing basic skills and equipment. All the kids get a hockey stick and a ball and a ticket voucher to a game."
"It exposes the students to something new," Seroski added.
Besides hockey, Pine Grove fifth-graders play basketball, soccer, baseball, football, kickball, dodgeball and do line dancing.
The teachers like to expose students to as much diversity as they can.
"You really know if you’re going to like it," Seroski said, "if you try it."
Seroski said he and Arroyo can teach hockey, but acknowledged that a visit from the Lightning was special.
"When it comes from professionals, it tends to sink in," he said.
Cullimore said the outreach program introduces the game to a lot of kids.
"If we get them excited in the game," he said, "maybe they’ll go skate or become Lightning fans."
During his time on the ice, Cullimore said, he had a few injuries and even "lost a couple teeth." Teaching the game to children seems to be a little safer.
"Kids are always in a good mood and happy to see us," he said.
Cullimore has been retired from pro hockey for seven years and works full time for the community hockey department with the Lightning. Besides school visits, his duties include hockey clinics and contributing to Tampa Bay Lightning Power Play radio.
Karli Bowen, 10, was already a hockey fan and said she had been to see the Lightning. The school visit, she said, was "cool" and gave her a better understanding of the game.
Russell Gruner, 11, watches hockey on television and is a Lightning fan. Working with Cullimore apparently really impressed him.
"It’s pretty cool playing with the greatest hockey player of all time," he said.
The outreach effort, Cullimore explained, is a program approved by the National Hockey League, and the league helps to fund it "to try to grow the game." The program expects to give out 100,000 hockey sticks and 500 sets of equipment.
Pine Grove received hockey sticks, balls, jerseys, two nets and four sets of goalie equipment. The physical education teachers appreciated the gift, as well as the visit.
Arroyo was impressed that the Lightning would come so far for such a small school.
"It’s all about experience," he said. "If one kid comes away from this a fan, they’ve done their job."