When the Greenville Road Warriors, the Upstate’s ECHL hockey team, decided to change their name last year, it was with one idea in mind: Engaging the community in a way they hadn’t before. The team had just signed a new five-year lease at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, and they wanted to connect with Greenville more personally. And thus the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (named after the popular Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail) were born.
“Obviously when we signed our five-year lease last year, one of our goals was not to be ‘a hockey team in Greenville,’” says Megan Dotson, the Swamp Rabbits’ vice-president of marketing. “We wanted to be ‘Greenville’s hockey team.’ So we started to re-evaluate who we were and our brand, and ‘Road Warriors’ didn’t make sense for who we were in the community and where we wanted to be.”
But behind the scenes the team had been working to strengthen ties with the Upstate since 2010. The team had long held an annual Toys For Tots “Teddy Bear Toss” night before the Christmas holidays, where ticket buyers were asked to bring a stuffed toy to throw onto the ice after the team’s first goal. The stuffed animals were then personally delivered to needy children by members of the team. On average, the Swamp Rabbits have delivered between 2,500 and 3,000 stuffed animals to children per year. But that’s not all the team was doing.
“We’ve also been doing the ‘Face Off for Fitness’ program since before the name change,” Dotson says. “That’s where we go into an after-school program with our assistant coach and our athletic trainer and teach children the important of nutrition and healthy living, as well as playing some one-on-one hockey. We do that once a month for our entire six-month season.”
Since the beginning of 2016, though, the team’s work within the community has reached a new level. “We’re working with nonprofits like the American Heart Association,” Dotson says. “We’re doing a Heart Walk with them on April 9. Our goal was to raise $2,000, but we’ve exceeded that already, so we’re going to set another goal.”
And the Swamp Rabbits’ work with the Heart Association has been so successful that other organizations have been reaching out, according to James Kalinowski, the team’s community relations coordinator. “Since we’ve been working with the Heart Association, I’ve also had the National Kidney Foundation and the American Diabetes Association contact us. They’ve been reaching out because they see what we’ve been doing in the community.”
Kalinowski says that part of his job is getting the players and coaches involved in community events, but one player has taken that job to heart: Defenseman Justin Da Silva. “Justin’s done a lot of different things,” Kalinowski says, “from going to the Ronald McDonald house where we cook food for families, to speaking to a class of first-graders. He takes the extra step of getting to know people and making sure to come back and do these events again and again.”
In January, DaSilva and former player Reid Campbell visited Natalie, a first-grade student at First Presbyterian Academy who suffers from several major heart complications. Both players surprised her at school during an unannounced visit.
“Natalie is such a special young girl,” Da Silva says. “Spending an afternoon with her makes you think about taking the little things for granted. Her personality and courage had an immediate impact on me, and it’s such a privilege to be able to give back to things like that in the community. It’s the little things we can do to give back that make such a big difference.”
Vincent Harris covers sports and music for the Greenville Journal. Got an idea for a local sports story? Email email@example.com