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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 06:37 am

Hockey players help out at Hazel Dell

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A member of the Jr. Blues tutors in the classroom.

They come from all over the nation – Arizona, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin and more – but Springfield’s Jr. Blues hockey players are giving back to this city as if it were their own.

About once a week, the Jr. Blues head to Hazel Dell Elementary School to be role models and friends to the school’s kindergarten through fifth-grade students. The players, who are all 16 to 20 years old, read aloud to classes and hang out with the children at lunch.

The Jr. Blues have been going to Hazel Dell for about two years now, recalls Hazel Dell principal Mike Grossen, and the visits are a thrill for the kids.

“We have a couple of kids who are huge Jr. Blues fans, who wear the Jr. Blues stuff anyway,” Grossen says. “When they got to see the players, their eyes got bright and they would wear their gear and get autographs. Some kids don’t even know what hockey is, but still some older kids from a team are having fun with them.”

Located near Lake Springfield in the city’s southeast side, Hazel Dell has about 70 percent of its students coming from low-income homes, compared with 65 percent district-wide and 45 percent statewide. The school also has a high rate of kids from single-parent homes, Grossen notes.

“It’s nice for the kids to see a male role model,” he says, adding that most role models available to elementary students are females. Grossen uses the opportunity to teach his students about the consequences of doing wrong.

“I asked some of the players who usually gets the penalty when you break the rules – the person who does it first or the person who reacts?” Grossen says. “It’s usually the person who reacts who gets put in the penalty box. It’s kind of a life lesson within the sports realm.”

Grossen says the kids also learn about determination and achievement.

“I think it gives them goals, something to strive for,” he says. “Maybe it’s not necessarily playing hockey, but working hard in school, working hard in practice. These are the fruits of your success.”

Each student at Hazel Dell recently got a free ticket to watch the Jr. Blues play at their home rink in Springfield’s Nelson Center at Lincoln Park.

“I think they have a blast, and the kids have a blast, too,” Grossen says, adding that the players are close enough in age to the children to still be relevant. “It’s good for the kids to see the older kids. I think it’s concrete, real life, instead of old people and teachers. The kids think we live here, but they can relate better with the players.”

Andrew Martin, 20, the Jr. Blues goalie from Stoughton, Wis., says he enjoys hanging out with the kids and giving back to the community at the same time.

“It’s the least we could do, to show other people we care,” Martin says.

Jack Callahan, 20, a team captain of the Jr. Blues from Red Bank, N.J., says the players talk to the kids about the importance of education, telling them, “It’s a big part of life.”

“I think it’s awesome to see the kids looking up to us, that there are little kids out there who idolize us,” Callahan says. “That’s really cool.”

The Jr. Blues are part of the North American Hockey League, an amateur league which gives players from ages 16 to 20 a chance to be scouted by colleges. The team has a triple-header at the Nelson Center Nov. 11-13 at 7 p.m. The Jr. Blues website is jrblues.com.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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