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Lightning strike, students rally

LECANTO — There was a lot of thunder over Lecanto Primary School on Monday as fourth- and fifth-graders took up sticks and went outside to become hockey stars for a day.

For years, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s rallying cry has been “Be the Thunder,” and the club — celebrating its 25th anniversary as a team — has been holding hockey clinics in schools all over the region.

After visiting most schools south of here, it was finally Citrus County’s turn. About five Lightning staffers, led by former defenseman Jassen Cullimore who was on the Bolt’s 2004 Stanley Cup team, gathered at LPS early Monday and stayed most of the day, hoping to show students the basics of hockey.

Students learned the fine art of puck passing and shooting, the rules of the game and how to get the puck past the goaltenders. Of course, instead of an ice rink, it was a makeshift area under an outdoor pavilion with plastic balls, specially made sticks and tennis shoes.

John Beaser, the school’s physical education teacher, found out about the clinics and pitched one at Lecanto Primary. He still remembers the email he received from the team saying they would be happy to come.

The day started with a small parade-like walk through the halls of the school, where teachers and students — many dressed in Bolt blue and white — greeted the guests. Cullimore, an imposing 6-foot, 5-inch figure, led the parade on roller skates.

Then it was outside for the hockey clinic and the students seemed to be having a ball (or puck). The clinics were 40 minutes long, and the six sessions lasted through the day.

“I’m a huge fan,” said Makenzie Maloney, 11, who’s attended about six Lightning games. “My dad watches a lot so I got into it.”

Her favorite player, defenseman Victor Hedman, couldn’t be there but that didn’t stop her enthusiasm.

James Pugliese, 10, said he admires the Lightning because they work as a team and don’t show off like other hockey teams.

“They don’t hog the puck,” he said. “They pass it to each other so they can actually win.”

And given the Bolts are currently leading their division, there’s a good chance they will make the playoffs.

“They’re having a great season,” Pugliese said. “They’re number one right now.”

Ava Rueck, 10, likes the fast pace of hockey games. She said most of her friends are not into hockey. In fact, only about three of her classmates are fans.

And that’s the purpose of these clinics. Given that Florida is not a traditional hockey market, it is not surprising there are fewer fans, said Morgan Phelps, one of the Lightning’s “street team” crews who was holding the outreach clinic.

“We want to get out in the community and get more kids involved in the sport of hockey,” Phelps said.

Beaser, a former New Yorker who followed the Buffalo Sabres, became a hardcore Lightning fan when he came to Florida. He loves the sport. He said he’s proud that Lecanto Primary is the only school in the county that has now had visits from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (twice) and the Lightning.

Beaser said he hopes the hockey clinics instill in students a love for the game.

“The goal is to show them that there is a new sport out there that’s growing tremendously,” he said.

Contact Chronicle reporter Michael D. Bates at 352-563-3205, mbates@chronicleonline.com.

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