By Bill Burt
---- — LAWRENCE -- It started with some good old fashioned floor hockey for 30 boys and girls from Lawrence and it ended recently with a good old fashioned pizza bash.
In between, those children who took part in the first annual Lawrence Floor Hockey League at St. Patrick’s Church gym on Broadway also combined to read 84 children’s books as part of the “Play & Read” program.
Organized by long-time local hockey player, coach and writer, Jay Atkinson, to deem his fall floor hockey experiment a success would apparently be an understatement.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Atkinson, a college English professor at Boston University, who also started the popular “Fun Hockey League” in Methuen, for those that didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars to play youth hockey.
“We got a grant from the Boston Bruins as well as generous donations from Lawrence Rotary and Lawrence Exchange clubs,” said Atkinson. “In fact, Dan Murphy from Northmark Bank, which also helped us out, had a ball coaching the kids at age 70. The money paid for jerseys, equipment, sticks, etc. But the key was we had a winning partner in Father Paul O’Brien at St. Patrick’s church.”
According to Atkinson, the first week 14 kids showed up. Word of mouth spread and by the end, 30 kids. The first year he started the Fun Hockey League in Methuen 18 kids showed up.
Most of the kids, ages 4 to 13, had never experienced hockey before.
“Certainly, the plan is to grow the program next fall,” said Atkinson.
As for the experience, Atkinson said it was even better than he imagined.
“One week this four-year-old girl approaches me with a serious expression, like she has something incredibly important and perhaps even frightening to ask me,” recalled Atkinson. “I bend down so I can hear her in the din of the gym, and in a tiny voice she says, ‘Can I play goalie, please?’ I think I startled her when I laughed pretty hard.”
The reading portion of the program Lawrence Floor Hockey League organizer Jay Atkinson says he thought it would be important to add the reading portion to his league, calling it the "Play & Read" aspect of the program. In all, the 30 children combined to read 84 books. "I sit down every spring with the middle school reading specialist from Methuen Schools, Ann Piccolomini, who reads scads of age level books each year to choose summer reading lists," said Atkinson. "I pitch books to Ann (no pun intended) and she pitches to me. Since the kids are interested in the sport, and we are stressing the combination of physical fitness/activity and recreational reading to improve school performance, it made sense that we mix in sports books and classics like 'Treasure Island' and 'My Dog Skip.'"