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Lightning's summer hockey camps draw players from abroad

Skaters take part in fast-moving drills at the Tampa Bay Lightning Summer Hockey Camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Skaters take part in fast-moving drills at the Tampa Bay Lightning Summer Hockey Camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

BRANDON

They came from as far away as Newfoundland, Canada, and Sweden for a hockey camp at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

Surprising, considering the Bay area didn't have professional hockey until 1992.

The fourth annual Tampa Bay Lightning camp, one of three the team hosted at its Brandon training facility in July, shows the continuing growth of a sport some doubted would succeed in the Florida heat.

The soldout camps, which included a novice camp, an elite camp for advanced players and last week's goalie camp, drew praise for their instructors and training methods.

They also showed the growing appeal of hockey.

Niklas McPherson's family plans an annual vacation from Sweden each July around the week of the elite camp.

"My father heard about the camp and this is the third time I've come," said the 14-year-old McPherson, who plays on a travel team back home. "I've learned a lot about stick handling here."

In addition to stick handling, the camps for ages 6 to 16 focus on passing, shooting, dry-land training and a touch of the game's history.

"We try to give them an overview of the game and how we got to this point today," said Nigel Kirwan, who coaches at the camp and has served as the Lightning's video coordinator since the team's inception.

Kirwan, who grew up in the hockey cradle of Winnipeg, hears many questions from campers about the Lightning players, as well as queries about how to improve in specific aspects of the game.

"Parents and kids ask, 'What's the next step? What do I need to do to get to the next level, play in college or even the National Hockey League?' " he said.

Kirwan noted the difficult road to the NHL. However, with increased local numbers he said it's possible a homegrown talent could skate for the Lightning one day.

The numbers bear Kirwan out, with thousands of kids from youth and recreation through club leagues in college playing the sport.

"When I first started here back in '92, I could count in the bay area there were probably 50 kids that played hockey in all the age groups," Kirwan said. "Now hundreds are playing hockey here, even more if you count roller and street hockey."

Twenty high school teams, including Bloomingdale and a split team from Brandon that joins with King, Armwood and Tampa Bay Tech, play at the Ice Sports Forum.

Sixty schools across the state play hockey, but the sport has yet to be sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association. For hockey to become a varsity sport instead of a club sport, it has to gain approval from the state Legislature.

"A lot of the growth is because we have two NHL teams in Florida, we have several ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) teams, junior hockey and club hockey for colleges. There's a tremendous amount of interest," said David Cole, the Lightning's director of fan development.

"We have some kids playing Division I hockey, and we may soon have some from Florida on the U.S. National team. There are more elite players coming out of California than any other state, and I think Florida will soon follow."

It's not just kids strapping on skates, with more than 85 adult teams in six different levels playing in Brandon, according to Cole.

One challenge is the sport's expense, with an average cost of $500 for equipment for defensemen and forwards and $1,000 to outfit a goalie.

Still, Carol Gertz needed little convincing to pay the $425 for her son Kyle, 13, to attend a week at the Lightning camp for the third consecutive year.

"He's been to camps all over the country, and he always says none are better than the Lightning camp," said Gertz of New Port Richey. "It's always the same coaches, they know the kids and the instruction is great."

For Ali Murdock, the camp enabled her to test her skills against boys, because there are no girl's teams in Bradenton. She plays in a house league in Ellenton and on a traveling team out of Atlanta.

Murdock, 16, became interested in hockey at age 4 while living in Wisconsin and watching her brother play.

"At (my age), my skill level isn't the same as boys at this age," Murdock said. "So I'm learning a lot about fundamentals at this camp."

The Lightning will hold a three-day holiday camp Christmas week for mites, squirts and peewee divisions.

Lightning's summer hockey camps draw players from abroad 07/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 31, 2008 4:31am]
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