Alex and I stepped into the Bolts Family Carnival just as it was getting set up. The ice at the heart of Amalie Arena was covered in a thick layer of rubber, and striped carnival tents were being raised over it. Tampa Bay Lightning players (dressed casually in shorts) were shooting hoops at the edge of the rink, and an ice sculpture that was actually a setup for table hockey was getting final touches put on it with a saw. So Alex and I went up to the press box to keep out of people’s way and chat before it began.
Alex is Raw Charge’s Syracuse Crunch editor, and is no stranger to all of the things that a hockey organization does to draw in the many diverse parts of a hockey town’s community (in fact, she wrote about the Crunch’s community involvement over here). While watching the carnival rise out of center ice, we chatted about how the Lightning and Syracuse Crunch work to make everyone feel at home.
Hockey is for Everyone, but especially our communities
In the NHL, February was Hockey is for Everyone month. The hashtag and initiative from the league had the purpose of making teams at least begin to think about diversity and inclusion. The term “inclusion” was left open to each franchise’s interpretation, meaning that everyone, from women to minorities to people of different abilities, could be recognized by the franchise.
The month was a busy one for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, though, with the trade deadline on February 26 and the All-Star Game on the last week in January. February 28 was the day the Bolts chose to enact the league’s initiative by bringing in the US Women’s national hockey team to be recognized for their gold-medal winning achievements at the Olympics. Additionally, Alex Killorn (Tampa Bay Lightning’s Hockey is for Everyone ambassador) and a few other players taped their sticks with pride tape at morning practice.
Although on paper the Tampa Bay Lightning seems to have done little else for Hockey is for Everyone month, the franchise enacts the principles of it as a matter of course, all year round — which is perhaps a better way to honor the spirit of the event.
For example, on January 28, during the All-Star Game, the Tampa Bay Lightning organization honored Willie O’Ree as one of its Community Heroes for advocating for the inclusion of black players in the NHL (as well as being THE first black player), and gave him a grant of $100,000 for his initiatives. And at every home game, the organization gives similar grants to members of the Tampa Bay Lightning community who work to serve others, especially those in at-risk situations. This initiative truly reaches out to give every member of the Tampa Bay community a place in the rink, and is what every NHL franchise should strive toward.
Between January 28 and February 28 it was business as usual, and part of that business was bringing a lot of fans into Amalie Arena to share time with Tampa Bay Lightning players. The Bolts Family Carnival is exactly what it sounds like, a county fair atmosphere complete with Steven Stamkos manning the shooting booth, Cedric Paquette playing ball hockey with a bunch of children, and Mikhail Sergachev defending the table hockey crease at center ice. Three goalies took turns playing NHL 18 against various fans — and in one amusing moment, Peter Budaj played the NHL 18 version of himself against his opponent’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Fans paid $40.00 for a chance to enjoy this time with the players. Where did this money go? Right back into the community -- to Jeff Vinik’s Lightning Foundation, which funds the very Community Hero program that contributed to Willie O’Ree’s causes and all of Tampa Bay Lightning’s initiatives in the community.
What does a Crunch fan think of it all?
Acha: Alex, you’ve written a lot about the Syracuse Crunch’s community activism. In last night’s game against the Devils [Alex and I saw the game the night before the carnival] they had the Standing Salute to honor a service member, and also honored a different Community Hero. You got to see how the Bolts weave community service into their games. What did you think of it?
Alex: It was all done on such a grand scale. I love how integrated into the community the Lightning and Jeff Vinik are. You can tell that Vinik truly cares about Tampa and the entirety of its population, whether people are Lightning fans or not. Yes, he’s a businessman, and, yes, much of what he does can be associated with the Lightning, which keeps the team in the news, but you can tell it goes beyond that.
Howard Dolgon, the owner of the Crunch, makes sure the front office in Syracuse is also firmly embedded into the community, although sometimes I wonder whether Dolgon himself feels that connection, because he does not live in Syracuse. Vinik has made his mark on the Tampa community in ways that go beyond the Lightning. He seems to understand what the community needs outside of the hockey team he wants it to support.
Acha: The Bolts Family Carnival is one of a days each season where the players are available to the community. Before he was picked up off of waivers by the Ducks, JT Brown’s Guide the Thunder initiative saw him interact with black students in a program to help mentor them for college. What kinds of things to the Crunch do to support all parts, especially at-risk parts, of the community?
Alex: One of the things the Crunch supported this past season during their Pink in the Rink game was She Matters, an initiative of the Upstate Cancer Center. She Matters is a movement inspired by and supported through at-risk female members of the Syracuse community. The program “trains resident health advocates to educate, support, encourage, and facilitate mammography screening among women who are over the age of 40 and living in (Syracuse’s disadvantaged areas).”
The Crunch has also supported several item drives for organizations that serve and support those in at-risk communities. The Tired Teddy Toss donated the bears and other stuff animals collected to the Syracuse branch of the Salvation Army. A diaper collection was held this past month for the CNY Diaper Bank, which helps social service organizations in the Syracuse area distribute diapers to families in need. They also supported a toy drive in December for the local Hillside Family of Agencies.
Acha: What did you think of the set up and access to the players at the Carnival? Also, what is the most interesting event that the Crunch do each year to allow the fans to interact with them?
Alex: I’ll be honest, I found the Carnival very intimidating. I’ve only been to Amalie Arena a handful of times, so trying to wrap my head around the layout and figure out what was going on for that particular event was challenging. However, overall I thought that the format was very innovative, and I liked that it aimed for a chance for fans to interact with players in fun and novel ways instead of the usual stilted interactions that can sometimes happen at simpler events.
I was a little surprised at the extra costs of the event. Although it was lovely that all of the proceeds went to charity, and I’m sure fans went into the event with that mindframe, it seemed like the team could have provided a bit more in the entrance fee. The locker room tour, for instance, was an additional $10, and I’m honestly not sure what I paid for. The dressing room was emptied of player equipment (which, okay, I get, for obvious reasons), and very few staff was on hand to answer questions. The trainer that was there was amazing, and told some great stories, but I’m not so sure it was worth the price. Including access to that area with the price of admission would have made more sense to me, honestly.
Acha: Very fair critique. Shout-out to the Strength Trainer, especially for letting us know that this season there are a lot more full-team workouts than there were last season.
Alex: I’m very pleased that the Crunch has brought back a specific engagement event this season: Crunch at Your Service. The dinner is a charity event that goes towards the Crunch Foundation, an initiative that raises money for nonprofit organizations in the area. I’ve been to one of these before, and had a lot of fun. The players are present, and will do things for those in attendance for tips. They will also do larger items - like sing-alongs and karaoke - for larger donations. Sometimes, members of the front office even get involved, which can lead to some interesting performances.
This season, tickets for the event range from $55-$60, and dinner is included in the price. There is also a silent auction before the event, with proceeds going to the event’s total.
Although extra money is required for tipping players and things, there aren’t really any expectations. At the last event, I think I bought a silicone bracelet from a player for a dollar or something. I also tried to tip Mike Angelidis $5 so that I could fulfill that season’s #HaveYouHuggedAnAngelidisToday mission, but he hugged me for free and wouldn’t take the money because he’s the most amazing captain we’ve ever had...
...Um. Sorry. The event. Right.
Holding this event has been hit-or-miss these past few seasons, but I’m hopeful that it becomes a team staple.
Acha: That sounds like fun! What would you like to see the Crunch do differently, if anything?
Alex: One of the things I would like to see the team do is get involved more in-person with organizations, schools, and after-school groups. I realize that some of this might be hindered by the age of our players. It can be challenging for adults from diverse backgrounds to work with at-risk children, so it could be that much more difficult for a 20-year-old AHL’er to handle it. But as someone who was lucky enough to have Mark Barberio visit my CNY classroom in 2013, I can testify to how much it means to kids from all backgrounds to get attention from these guys.