Color of Hockey: Lightning anthem singer lending voice to reading project

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William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past nine years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, Sonya Bryson-Kirksey, who performs the national anthem at Tampa Bay Lightning home games. She has started a project to read to children, with videos shared online.

Sonya Bryson-Kirksey wanted to use her voice to do more than sing the national anthem at Tampa Bay Lightning home games during the pandemic.

The 54-year-old retired Air Force technical sergeant harkened back to her childhood and came up with an idea that she hopes inspires and provides comfort to young kids living in the time of COVID-19: Reading aloud.

Bryson-Kirksey and her sister, Phillis McMiller, created the Sonni Reading Project, in which Bryson-Kirksey reads books aloud to children.

The readings are available on the project’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as via podcast on platforms such as Spotify, Google and Apple podcasts.

The books range from sports-related titles such as “The Magic Hockey Stick” and “Goodnight Hockey,” to contemporary stories like “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” and “Pandita and the Pandemic,” and all are read in a soothing, deliberate tone.

Bryson-Kirksey and her sister began the project in November. It reminded them of their childhood days in South Carolina when an aunt used to read to them when she visited on Sundays.

“When I was a little one, she used to read to me,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “She used to pull me into her lap to read when my mom was doing her hair. But the thing was, you have some people read to you and you have some people who act. She was an acting reader, and she made a story come alive to us.”

Bryson-Kirksey said she wanted to have that same impact when she began reading to her toddler grandchildren online. As the pandemic continued into late 2020, Bryson-Kirksey and her sister decided that instead of just reading to their family, “Why can’t we do it for the world?”

“Kids are going through so much right now, we want to be a positive for them,” she said.

Bryson-Kirksey hopes the project will inspire children to grab books and read on their own.

“There’s been this onslaught of social media and other things electronic,” she said. “I would love children all over the world to rediscover reading.”

As the reading project rolls along, Bryson-Kirksey said she hopes to invite some Lightning players to be substitute readers.

“We’re still in our infancy,” she said. “It’s something I have on the back burner.”

Bryson-Kirksey has been performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Lightning home games since 2013, but this season and 2019-20 have been like no others for her.

She performed the anthem live for the Lightning’s home opener Jan. 13, then the Lightning relied mostly on recorded versions afterward.

She has done the anthem in person six or seven times since March 13, when the Lightning began to allow a maximum of 3,800 fans into Amalie Arena for games.

Bryson-Kirksey, who has multiple sclerosis, said she’s very careful when she’s inside the arena.

“It’s been a safe environment,” she said. “I haven’t had any issues. As far as my health is concerned, I have to ensure I have my mask on up until I sing, then immediately put it back on afterward.”

Besides wearing a mask, the pandemic brought another notable change for Bryson-Kirksey: performing the Canadian national anthem. She only had done it once before at a home game because Lightning owner Jeff Vinik said he preferred that she just sing the United States anthem because of the energy she brings to the song.

Bryson-Kirksey recorded versions of the United States and Canadian anthems that were played before Lightning “home” games in the bubble during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

She has performed “O’ Canada” in Amalie Arena once this season, for the Toronto Raptors of the National Basketball Association, who are playing home games in Tampa this season because of the border closure between the United States and Canada due to the pandemic.

“The Canadian anthem is so melodic, it’s beautiful,” she said. “I love it.”

Bryson-Kirksey loves that the Lightning won the Stanley Cup last season and is eagerly waiting to receive her championship ring. She had it fitted to go on the middle finger of her right hand.

“It’s my microphone hand and the middle finger is the one that shows the most when I hold the microphone,” she said. “I can’t wait to wear it when I sing.”

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