TAMPA — J.T. Brown can be an enforcer on the ice as one of the Lightning's top fighters.
But on a recent Monday, he found himself keeping some seventh-graders accountable during a spirited game of Monopoly at Webb Middle School.
"I'm the banker," Brown said, smiling.
Brown, 26, is also a mentor and hockey coach to the 36 at-risk kids in the Lightning's "Guide the Thunder" program. Especially for the black students, Brown is a relatable example. The former University of Minnesota-Duluth star is one of about 30 black players in the NHL.
"They can see myself and think, 'Well, maybe I can do that,' " Brown said.
The program's goal is not to produce first-round draft picks but rather help some of the kids be the first in their family to go to college. Most are from low-income, single-parent homes. Many had never skated or picked up a stick before the initiative began in August.
It runs every Monday through the school year at Webb or Pierce Middle School and is funded by the NHL and the NHL Players Association.
Before taking the kids on the ice, Brown and his wife, Lexi, help them with their schoolwork.
"Some of their homework is harder than you think, I'm not going to lie," Brown said.
It's the kind of hands-on approach to working on racial issues that Brown prefers more than any protest.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt for the national anthem this season, sparking a discussion of racial issues, Brown spoke out, too.
Brown took issue on Twitter with U.S. World Cup coach John Tortorella saying he would bench any player who sat during the anthem at the September tournament. Brown later said that his response came from his "reality" as a black athlete in the NHL and he didn't want "young minorities who love the game of hockey to think what's going on in America today is going unnoticed by the hockey community."
Brown said he hoped to find ways other than protests to impact the community and bring awareness to racial issues. He and Lexi, expecting their first child (a girl) in June, plan to start their own charity or foundation. For now, Brown's involvement with Guide the Thunder is a good first step.
Brown grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Rosemount. His father, Ted, was a running back for the Vikings.
Minnesota is a hockey hotbed, and the sport became the favorite for Brown and his buddies. He was frequently the only black player on his youth and travel teams.
He dealt with racial slurs, and sometimes worse.
"Some days were good; some days weren't as good," Brown said. "I had family and friends there. There were plenty of times where they had your back and you put up with some things. But our coaching staff, friends and family supported me and helped me go through certain situations where somebody might not have that same support system."
Brown doesn't go into specifics of his experiences with the kids in Guide the Thunder, telling them only that he has been through what they have.
He and Lexi want to help the game grow. Lexi also plays hockey — she's a goalie — and growing up was often told females couldn't play the game.
They're already making an impact with their efforts. Brown is thrilled to see the improvement of some kids, who have gone from struggling to put on their skates to moving smoothly on the ice.
"When we would have J.T. come out, all of a sudden there was a sense of, 'Hey, he looks like me,' '' said Jay Feaster, the Lightning's executive director of community hockey development. "He's a professional hockey player. We had some kids who never played the game, didn't follow the game, didn't follow us on TV. And after J.T. came out, the next week the kids were asking, 'Hey, how come J.T. didn't play last night? Was Coach mad at him?' It's obvious that they're watching and following."
Brown has received Facebook and Twitter messages from parents in Minnesota who say their kids are playing because of him.
"It doesn't happen every day, but when it does, it's a special thing," he said. "When they tell their stories, it brings you back to reality sometimes. You're playing in the highest league. It keeps yourself level. It's nice to be able to see those up close."
One of the kids who played Monopoly with the Browns at Webb Middle School was Shane.
Shane was one of the biggest challenges of the program, said Kristen Bowness, who runs Guide the Thunder for the Lightning.
"Bad grades, bad performance, didn't go to class," said Bowness, daughter of Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness.
But now Shane can't wait for Mondays. Bowness said Shane kept coming up to her to show his latest weekly progress report. He got all C's, a big jump from the D's and F's he had been earning. Bowness said the goal is to expand the program to 100 kids in coming years.
"It's so exciting to see how somebody was helped because someone was holding him accountable," Bowness said.
It's a group effort, including tutors and Lightning staff members who serve as mentors and coaches. Trainers help kids with fitness after the hour of hockey at Xtra Ice in Tampa. Brown is the only current Lightning player involved with the program so far, attending a few times when the team is home.
"It's a good feeling to know you can help change someone else's life," he said.
Brown makes it clear that though he doesn't agree with the decision of some athletes to kneel during the anthem, he doesn't blame them, either.
"There's no right or wrong way to (protest)," he said.
But, he added, "If you don't vote, you don't have a say."
Brown believes there's not one specific answer in creating change; it's important just to keep the conversation going. That's why he doesn't regret making his statement in September, though he received criticism on social media and elsewhere. Brown joked that he didn't think he had that many Twitter followers (more than 15,000 at @JTBrown23).
"You want (athletes) to be vocal, and then when they say something, there's backlash," Brown said. "There's plenty of good stuff on Twitter as well. You take the good with the bad."
More important than his statements are his actions, Brown said. So he'll be at Guide the Thunder every Monday he can.
"It's a good idea for me to be out there so they can see, 'I can do this,' people they can relate to," Brown said. "If I can just get them started."
He already has.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.