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Hockey hits the streets to build fan base

The kids seemed unsure what direction to take.

The rubber ball scooted across the hard-court surface, rolling against the fence.

Some kids ran around in circles, chasing one another as the ball lay at the other end of the tennis court.

A boy yelled, "Is this what we are supposed to do?"

"Yeah," his friend said. "I've seen this game on TV. The players chase one another and try to take away the ball while bashing one another around."

"Wow," the other boy said. "Let's go."

On Tuesday afternoon at Roberts Complex in St. Petersburg, it was time to play street hockey.

"Kids are really interested in this," said Ricky Craft, recreational director for the newly created street hockey league in St. Petersburg. "This is a chance for all kids to try something different and have fun."

Street hockey leagues are being organized in conjunction with the Tampa Bay Lightning. More than 75 rec centers will be operating street hockey programs.

"This is how you develop a program and fan interest," said Gerry Helper, vice president for communications for the Lightning. "You get the youngsters involved and start letting them gain a better and broader understanding of hockey. Once they start to follow the sports and develop a passion for it, they can begin to relate to it better."

In St. Petersburg, 11 teams will make up the hockey league. Other community centers involved are Willis Johns, Frank Pierce, Lake Vista, Shore Acres, Walter Fuller, Northwest, Childs Park, Wildwood, Campbell and Gladden Parks. The league starts its preseason today and will begin the 2{-month season in November, which will include approximately 22 games.

The league is for girls and boys 8 to 11 years old. The leagues are being conducted through after-school programs at most of the centers. There will be 16 players on each team, and teams will play three 15-minute periods. Hockey rules apply. Some centers will play indoors with a regular puck. Some will play outside on a tennis or basketball court, where a rubber ball will be used.

"We eventually want kids standing in their back yards pretending to be Wayne Gretzky," Helper said. "How many kids have pretended to be Joe Namath throwing the football or Bob Gibson pitching? We want kids to relate to hockey."

At the other end of the court Tuesday at Roberts Complex, players scrambled for the loose ball. A boy and girl stood next to one another, gripping their sticks.

"Do you know any players on Tampa Bay?" the boy said.

"No. But I do know two hockey players, Wayne Gretzky and the Pittsburgh Penguins guy," she said.

"That's Mario Lemieux," he said. "They're the only two I know."

"Well, let's get some hockey cards," she said.

Where to play

Here is a partial list of area organizations that are involved with

the Street Lightning youth program:

Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast: Tarpon Springs (937-6837), Northside St. Petersburg (896-0445), Southside St. Petersburg (327-6556), Clearwater (791-6217).

Manatee Country Girls Club: West Bradenton (792-2137), East Bradenton (747-3337), Palmetto (722-8988).

Boys and Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay (875-5771 in Tampa).

Hillsborough Country Parks and Recreation Center (272-5840).

St. Petersburg Parks and Recreation (893-7335).

Clearwater Parks and Recreation (462-6531).

Pasco County Parks and Recreation (855-4680).

City of Largo (587-6720, ext. 5001).

Special Olympics of Hillsborough County (831-6441).

Special Olympics of Pinellas County (443-4221).