The Lightning has always had a symbiotic relationship with the growth of hockey in the Tampa Bay Area. The franchise runs the high school leagues throughout the region, operates youth camps with former and current players, and even goes directly to schools to drum up interest in the game.
It’s most apparent in years when Tampa is good. The 2004 Stanley Cup championship led to a brief surge in popularity and so did the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last year. When those faces become present, so does the sport at the youth level.
“That’s why kids play hockey,” said Tom Lindemuth, the general manager at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex “Those are the people that they look up to and now they’re actually running the league.”
The team logo and colors have flooded Ellenton Ice and Sports all week with the Lightning Made Summer Camp making its fourth annual stop in Manatee County. The five-day camp, which began Monday and will conclude Friday, has become a regular draw in Ellenton, although this is the first year since the camp first visited Ellenton Ice and Sports that attendance has dipped. After drawing 47 campers last year, the Lightning Made Camp has about 40 skaters this year.
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The slight dip was to be expected. The Tampa Bay Area went hockey crazy for a few months last spring and summer when Tampa reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2004. Ellenton Ice was also the second destination this year after the camp spent last week at The Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. Next week, the Lightning will go to the RDV Sportsplex in Orlando.
“Their numbers overall have been up,” Lindemuth said. “They’re just a great organization to work with.”
The franchise has been central to growth in the Tampa Bay Area through camps like the one in Ellenton and a variety of other measures. The Lightning spent this past school year visiting 120 schools around the region to hand out street hockey sticks and balls. Even now, Jassen Cullimore, who played for the 2004 team and now helps run the franchise’s youth programs, would get children who were dismissive of the sport.
“How many of you have played hockey before?” Cullimore would ask and watch just a few stray hands shoot into the sky.
“Kids are very honest. They’re brutally honest sometimes,” Cullimore said Thursday. “They’ll come right out and say, ‘Oh, I don’t like hockey.’”
By the end of the session, Cullimore said, those kids’ opinions would be completely flipped. They end up seeking out their local ice rink with time the Lightning provides as part of its Chase Your Dreams program. Ellenton, which is a frequent partner of the Lightning’s, is even removing the grass from its indoor soccer field to convert it into a roller hockey rink.
Earlier this summer, Ellenton was in the center of one of Tampa Bay’s most important milestones yet. Nick Pastujov, a Bradenton native who began playing hockey at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, became the region’s first player to be drafted when the Islanders took him in the seventh round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. The left wing was born in 1998, and began skating at Ellenton Ice and Sports as soon as it opened in 2001. In 2004, he began to take the sport more seriously right as the sport was growing in popularity thanks to Tampa’s championship.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids since I’ve been back, they’re saying that’s when they started playing,” Cullimore said. “We’re seeing that again.”