Over the past year, the Mahoning Valley Phantoms' "Hockey for Health" program has taught over 3,000 local youth the basics of hockey and the value of physical fitness.
The program was started in an effort to bring hockey to the forefront of the Valley sports scene. Since the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, the Phantoms have coordinated with area schools to bring players into the classroom to help teach kids a bit about hockey.
"Being as Youngstown is basically a football town," Phantoms assistant coach Curtis Carr said, "this is a way to try and get out and help educate the community on the sport of hockey. We reach into schools, interact with the kids, and have them actually participate in a P.E. class and learn some of the fundamentals of the game."
Since its inception, though, Carr says the program has evolved. Now, the players are being asked to teach much more than just hockey.
"They talk about their diet," said Carr. "They talk about the commitment they've had to make to play at a level like this as far as working out, maintaining a good level of fitness and sleeping right.
"The players are trying to make people more aware of how to live a healthy, active lifestyle and more aware of different exercises and sports you can play. Even going public skating, for most kids in this area, is a pretty unique experience."
Besides the health advice, Phantom players are adamant about how important it is to excel in school in order to reach their goals, a lesson that both parents and teachers sometimes have a hard time stressing.
"The players also talk about how important academics are for them to earn scholarships," Carr said. "So, in addition to hockey, they have to take care of things in the classroom as well."
The program is constantly progressing, and for every school that the players visit, they try and add something a bit different.
"Last year, we went to about 20-25 schools," says Carr. "We try and tweak the program for each school. There is an interactive part of it in the P.E. classes; more of a floor hockey class. They also get to try out some of their skills with players on the team. In other schools, we have assembly programs and we come out and use PowerPoint to discuss it."
A few of the benefits of the Hockey for Health program extend beyond the classroom walls and all the way to the Boardman Ice Zone.
"Each kid gets a free pass to a Phantoms game and a free pass to a public session," Carr said, "so they're able to come and actually try skating without being charged for it."
A few schools took advantage of the program by coming to the Ice Zone on a field trip. Students learned how the ice is made, how the facility works, and got a free skating session.
So what's the verdict on Hockey for Health?
"All the teachers have loved it," Carr noted. "They thought it was a really unique program. They sent thank you letters and some even made cookies for us.
"The students seem to like it a lot as well. You would see them identify the players that were in their class and then come to a game. That was a big kick for the kids to actually see the players from their classrooms. The feedback has all been very positive."
In addition to the kids and teachers loving it, the numbers are encouraging as well. The Ice Zone has already seen a significant increase in the number of kids involved in the Phantoms youth hockey programs.
This year, the goals for the Hockey for Health program are even loftier.
"Now we're branching out," Carr said. "We had requests during Reading Week last year, and our players went back out into schools and assisted in classrooms with reading."
Carr and the Phantoms hope to continue with that this year as well.