The first-place and playoff-bound Mahoning Valley Phantoms still have a month of games left in the regular season, but the organization is already considering its sixth year of operations a great success off the ice.
That comes from a highly active presence in the community that started before the season even began with strong bonds between Phantoms players and their host families and continued through the season with the team volunteering with both local and national charitable organizations in the Valley and hosting charity-driven events at home games throughout the current campaign.
Phantoms president Bruce J. Zoldan views the team’s continued commitment to the community to be a great source of pride.
“The Phantoms hockey players and organization as a whole are strongly tied to the Mahoning Valley,” said Zoldan. “They know the importance of giving back to their community.
“I am very proud of our team, on and off the ice.”
The first community relationship that players build starts as soon as they arrive in the Valley during the preseason: moving in with their new local host family.
The relationship between host - or “billet” - families and their players is a special and important one, especially for the younger players on the team. With this year’s Phantoms squad being the youngest in the program’s history, with eight players on the team still in high school, billet families took on a role of even higher importance this season.
First-year forward Brad Smith, whose host parents are Greg and Kara Blasko, says that the Blaskos were critical to his early months with the Phantoms.
“It was a big step to move away from home at age 17,” said Smith, “but the Blaskos did such a great job helping me make the transition. They treated me so well and made it easy for me to be away from my parents for so long.”
The Blasko family also has five children, and Smith admits that being around all the youngsters has helped him grow up a bit.
“Coming from a house with just one brother, it was quite different to move into a house with five kids,” said the Trenton, Mich., native. “After awhile you get used to it, and now I know how much these kids look up to us, so I always have to be there and set a good example and do the right thing.”
As the season has progressed, the Phantoms have been all over the community, volunteering with organizations like the United Way, YMCA, Poland Rotary, Boardman’s Oktoberfest and more.
Team captain Johnny Meo sees the team getting out and volunteering as a great way of repaying the Valley for their support of Phantoms hockey.
“It’s definitely important for us to get out there,” said the third-year forward, “because the Mahoning Valley has been so supportive of us, so we love to go out and make sure that we support everyone in the area just as much.”
The Phantoms also draw high praise from the organizations with whom they work. Marilyn Fielding, the Potential Development Program School for Autism’s special education coordinator, was thrilled with the help the players and staff provided in September when they spent a day with the school’s special needs students.
“The Phantoms are the best group our school has worked with,” said Fielding, “and we are going to request to have them back again next year.”
The team also takes its community involvement a step further, as the Phantoms organization has started the Hockey for Health initiative, which brings players and coaches to local schools, using hockey as a jumping-off point to teach the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle.
Phantoms assistant coach and director of player personnel Curtis Carr, the director of Hockey for Health, explains the mission of the program.
“With all the health concerns facing our society these days, we felt the program was a great way to educate our community about a healthy active lifestyle and the sport of hockey,” said the third-year Phantoms assistant. “We feel it’s been a great success as our youth program has doubled in size since Hockey for Health began.
“Our girls program, youth teams, and ‘Learn to Play’ classes are at all-time highs, too. The kids are having fun and being healthy while playing a great game.”
Meo, who has been the Phantoms’ most active player in terms of community relations for the past three seasons, views Hockey for Health as his favorite part of volunteering.
“It’s great to get in there and interacting with the smaller kids and teaching them about the importance of healthy living,” said Meo, “but it’s also pretty cool because we’re coming at them from a different direction. Football is really big around here, but we’re using hockey to teach them. So we’re not only educating, but we’re turning on entire classes of kids to the sport that we love.”
Hockey for Health visits many local schools every season including Springfield Elementary, South Range Middle School, Poland Union Elementary, St. Patrick’s School, St. Charles School, Poland Family and others.
The Phantoms also hosted a Hockey for Health game on Feb. 24 that brought in over 5,000 local students to enjoy a hockey game and further the program’s message of living healthy.
In addition to going out into the community, the Phantoms welcome local schools and organizations to take part in home games at the Chevrolet Centre to raise funds for their programs.
“Many charities join the Phantoms at games in an effort to raise funds,” said Zoldan. “We value the opportunity to partner with various charities at our games.”
Included on that list are the United Way, Relay for Life and the Mario Lemieux Foundation. The Mario Lemieux Foundation was part of a special edition jersey auction that raised thousands of dollars for the Foundation’s cancer research.
“The jersey auction was a huge success for our cancer and neonatal research initiatives,” said Foundation spokesman Andrew Parish, “and the winners of the jersey auctions each have a very unique item to remember the special night.”
The Phantoms aren’t slowing their commitment to community involvement as the regular season draws to a close at the end of this month, either; the team will be hosting “United Way Night” on March 13, holding another charity jersey auction on St. Patrick’s Day and continuing its Hockey for Health visits to local schools.