Gladiators Defenseman Tyler Shiplo reads to 4th and 5th Graders from Flowery Branch Elementary School (Flowery Branch, Georgia) during the School's annual "Read Across America" week events on March 1st.
Hockey hasn’t exactly worked out in Atlanta. The Flames’ eight-year stint in the 1970s didn’t help turn the city into a puck-loving place (the team is now in Calgary). Neither did the Thrashers, a team that spent 12 seasons in Atlanta in the early 2000s before bolting for Winnipeg in 2011. Since then, Atlanta has been left without an NHL team. But the city does have a minor league-like team to root for in the Atlanta Gladiators.
A member of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), the Gladiators are a mid-level professional team, which is the hockey equivalent of AA baseball. Hockey is a tough sell in the southeast, but this Boston Bruins affiliated organization is doing its best to change that through books.
As a way to increase the team’s visibility, boost attendance at games, and help elementary and middle school kids in the community, the Gladiators introduced Hat Trick for Reading. The program has been running since the 2003-04 season. In order to participate, students have to read three age-appropriate books, as selected by their teachers. Students have read books like Wonder by R.J. Palacio and Rump by Liesl Shurtliff. After they are done, they have to show proof of their reading with something like a book report or an essay. After they have scored their reading “hat-trick,” the school gives the names of the winners to the Gladiators, and the hockey club, in turn, gives out tickets to a home game.
“We are averaging between 100 and 130 participants a season,” said Director of Community Relations, Jim Hall. “We have roughly 100 school groups between public, private, and home school groups participating.”
The program is making a difference in the community and exposing school kids to the world of hockey. “It brings in new fans, readers, and people that might not normally come to a hockey game,” Hall said.
About six miles down the road from Infinite Energy Arena, where the Gladiators play their home games, is Walnut Grove Elementary School. This school has participated in the program for eight years and average about 40 to 50 student participants each year. When asked about the impact that that it has on the school, Walnut Grove media specialist Amy Bross said, “It pulls the kids together, encourages reading, and encourages friends to read and go to a game together.”
Hat Trick for Reading isn’t the only way the Gladiators are involved in the Atlanta community. “We do three events throughout the year. We gather non-perishable food to give to shelters around the holidays, we collect jackets for the poor around the first of the year, and we have the teddy bear toss event in February,” Hall said.
While hockey may not be ATL’s most popular pastime, the Gladiators are dedicated to creating more hockey fans — and bookworms.
Photos: Atlanta Gladiators (classroom), Bruce Bennett/Getty Images (action)