For Tampa Bay’s beloved Lightning, being the hometown team has always transcended a love for the sport. Their true winning comes from giving back. We recently met up with Jassen Cullimore for a socially-distant interview outside Amalie Arena. A former player, Cullimore now helps lead the Lightning Made Hockey program.
As we sat next to the Stanley Cup, which he helped bring home as part of the team in 2004, we talked about how the team is not only winning big on the ice, but making an impact on the lives of children in families in our community.
Byrne: First—let’s talk about the Stanley Cup since it’s right here on the table next to us! You were part of the team when the Lightning brought it home in 2004—you know from personal experience the work and determination it takes.
Cullimore: It takes a lot to win this. When we won in 2004—I mean…I was here in the lean times when we were losing 50 games a year, so to go through the process that we went through and the changes the team in made in personnel—to win it, it’s tough.
Byrne: Team sports teach you a lot on and off the field…or ice. What life lessons did you learn as a player that you’ve been able to share with your children and the kids you meet through the Lighting Made Program?
Cullimore: You keep at it. If you have a goal in mind, you figure out what you need to do to reach that goal and no matter what, you just keep working at it. It’s funny—we were talking before—I have my three daughters at home e-learning and right now I’m working with my youngest. She’s in grade 6, and we’re trying to get her caught up since it’s the end of the quarter. I’ve been sitting with her the last couple of nights and doing grade 6 Math and World History. That’s the thing, to let her know we need to get caught up, this is what we need to do… that you have to sacrifice a little bit; you have to put in the work to get the mark you want.
Byrne: There’s a picture of you with one of your daughters after the Stanley Cup win in 2004. What is that moment like for you all as players and as parents?
Cullimore: That’s the great part. When they’re coming up to the plane, the kids, especially the young ones, they don’t really care about this (Stanley Cup). They just want to see their dad. It’s a special moment. She’s 17 now—we have that picture up and she walks by it every day. It’s one of those things you never forget and eventually the kids will realize the importance of it.
Byrne: We’ve all made the so-called pandemic pivots and the Lightning Made Program is no different as you all produced virtual programming for kids.
Cullimore: We were trying to think of stuff we can do. I know ThunderBug had his thing with fitness he was sending out. We sort of jumped on that. We put together some videos. We put together virtual clinics on Saturday mornings and were averaging 40 or 50 kids.
We also have videos up there and it just shows stuff you can do with regular household items at home—if you are stuck at home and can’t go anywhere, you don’t necessarily have all of the equipment you need.
Byrne: The Lightning Made Hockey programming offers something for EVERYONE which is really from little kids to adults. Can you talk about some of the programming available?
Cullimore: We just started up our Heroes League program which is a great program. We have firemen, police officers, doctors, teachers, veterans, wounded warriors…I believe we have 50 or 60 players. We just had our first game.
We’ve been running the High School Hockey League throughout the whole thing. There’s a lot going on. We have our Sled Program (adapted version of ice hockey for athletes whose disability may inhibit them from playing stand-up hockey) and we’re trying to introduce games to girls as much as we can. It’s all run by Jay Feaster—he was the general manager when we won this thing (Stanley Cup) in 2004.
We’re trying to stay safe and keep everybody else safe. The ice rinks are open, so we are doing stuff there. The Learn to Play program (8-week program for kids ages 5-10), if you’re a beginner, it’s great deal. You get to learn from alumni such as myself, Mathieu Garon, Brian Bradley — all sorts of guys.
We have diversification program ‘Guide the Thunder’ where we bring middle school kids who haven’t been out playing hockey. That group, we’ve had a few graduate to high school, and now they [are] a JV team that plays in our high school league.
We have our spring camp coming up in March and then we’ll be looking to the summer. We usually do anywhere from three to six summer camps.
Byrne: School visits are a big part of the team’s commitment to Tampa Bay. Why is it so important for the team to connect with kids and families?
Cullimore: For everyone that’s around here that follows hockey, they know that Jeff Vinik is one of the best owners in all of sports. He gives back to the community, he gives checks out every home game, so it’s important for him to get out in the community. What we’re doing is trying to get young kids involved because we know that once we get them hooked, once they have the passion for the game, they’ll be fans for life. Hopefully Lightning fans.
We just want to share some of the knowledge we have from playing and give opportunities that might not take a look at hockey as an option as a sport for them.
The school visits which we call ‘Build the Thunder’—we take over their PE class for the day—we teach the kids how to play street hockey or ball hockey and when we leave, we leave equipment. We leave nets, sticks, balls, jerseys for the school and the kids each get a stick and ball to take home. We started that program five years ago and we completed our first program. Right now, we’re in the middle of our second program, which is grades 1-3, so the young kids.
We’ve done over 800 school visits in the five years I’ve been here and it’s quite amazing that we’ve been able to go out and see that many kids and introduce them to the game.
Build the Thunder by the numbers:
During the first phase of program they handed out 120,000 sticks. So far, the current program has given away another 60,000 sticks, getting close to the 100,000 goal.
Byrne: Lightning Made Hockey has also made a commitment to open 10 outdoor street hockey rinks in the five-county Tampa Bay area.
Cullimore: We go out there and we run clinics at the outdoor links, ran tournaments. It’s really great to see the tournaments where you see the kids where we’ve gone to the schools to visit them and they’ve actually put a team together and then we go to the outdoor rinks and we see their team and we see them play and compete.
If you have inline skates, you can try that out there at the outdoor rinks. You can just take a stick and a ball and have fun with the kids. Some of them are really done up with a cover, so if it’s hot out you stay cool. Check out the local one that’s nearest to you.
Byrne: We always ask this question—what are your favorite things to do as a family in Tampa Bay and what is it about this area you all love so much?
Cullimore: When I finished playing, we were going to go back to Chicago because I played there and we just decided with the weather here, being able to be out like this even though for Tampa this is cool weather—70 or 72—that’s the reason we came back. Just being outside with the kids, with family, going to go walk the dogs, especially now with the pandemic (our dogs are pretty exhausted!).…it’s just being able to get outside with them.
Learn more: LightningMadeHockey.com
*Photos provided by Tampa Bay Lightning