by Brian Smith || AHL On The Beat
When Jared Ross walks into an elementary school, he just seems like any other teacher or staff member in the building. But when the Philadelphia Phantoms forward and alternate captain throws on his jersey just before going into a classroom to read to a group of children, it’s like he’s putting on his superhero costume.
That has been the scene in 20 schools around the greater Philadelphia region over the past month while the Phantoms have been staging what has become their annual late February reading tour, which drums up interest in hockey and reading during the weeks immediately prior to National Reading Month and Read Across America in the nation’s schools.
Players volunteer their time to go to grade-school classrooms and read a hockey-themed book to students, as well as take questions and sign autographs. The tour wraps up this week when Pete Zingoni visits a New Jersey elementary school.
“It really feels good to be able to go in there and when they see you walk in with the jersey on, they really look up to you and it makes you feel good,” Ross said. “I remember when I was that age and I had something like that happen to me, I was always really excited and it would really change my day if I was having a bad day.”
The two staples of the Phantoms reading tour are Z is for Zamboni, a hockey-themed alphabet book that targets kids around first grade and younger, and The Magic Hockey Stick, a fictional tale involving a girl whose father bought a Wayne Gretzky stick at an auction, which the girl later returns to Gretzky after he goes into a scoring slump. That book usually goes along to classes of second- through fourth-graders.
At every appearance, the player first reads the book, and then takes questions from the class about what it’s like to be a hockey player. Most of the questions revolve around the player’s background – where he’s from, how many goals he’s scored, how many games the team has won, and the like.
In virtually every classroom, there’s an inevitable question of whether the player has ever gotten into a fight. Nearly every player has, but they’re careful to caution the kids that fighting’s OK only in professional hockey, never in school.
“I enjoy it,” said Phantoms defenseman Nate Guenin, one of the team’s stronger readers. “I think most of the guys do. You get to go out and interact with most of the younger fans, and you get to see their faces light up when you show up with the book and the jersey and get to sign autographs for them. It’s a good experience for both the players and the kids.”
Afterwards, the players give each student a photo card, and usually will go around the room to sign each one.
Most of the classrooms the Phantoms visited had about 20 students, but a few were larger. Although it’s a bit hard to imagine with players who play every night in front of thousands of people, it can be a bit intimidating to hand a player a grade-school-level book in front of a group of 100 kids.
“One of the kids goes to a lot of the games and keeps up with me, and his father wanted me to go read to the school,” Ross said. “It was about 90 kids, so it was pretty interesting, but it was pretty fun nonetheless.”
The initiative does help build interest in hockey, but more importantly, it builds interest in reading.
“We emphasize that it’s good to read,” Ross said, “and maybe it motivates them to want to read a little bit more.”