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From youth to pros, hockey sinks its roots in Florida

TAMPA — Dallas Eakins' roots were deeply embedded in the Florida backroads.

Across from a butcher shop on Circle B Road in a rural part of Dade City, Eakins lived with his mother, father and younger sister in a trailer. Beside their modest home was his grandparents' shack. Beside that was his great grandmother's.

For the first eight years of his life, Eakins' days were filled with baseball games and riding his bicycle down the dirt roads of the small town in Pasco County while his adoptive stepfather supported the family as a long-distance truck driver, taking loads from nearby Tampa to Montreal or Toronto on a regular basis.

Often, his Canadian father would return with souvenirs from the faraway places he would visit.

"He would bring back a hockey puck or a hockey stick or a signed picture of a player," Eakins recalled. "But the problem for me was, I was the only kid that had a hockey stick. There wasn't a lot of sharing of hockey stories with other kids."

That's because in the 1970s in Florida, the sport was nearly nonexistent.

It wasn't until his family relocated to Peterborough, Ontario, when Eakins was 8 that he finally had firsthand exposure to hockey. Even then, he said, it wasn't really by choice.

"I'll never forget rolling in there, there were kids playing hockey on the streets," Eakins recalled. "Right away, that's how you're going to make friends. That's what all the kids did, so that's what almost you had to do to fit in."

In a feat that never would have crossed 8-year-old Eakins' mind, just nine days shy of his 26th birthday, he became only the second native Floridian to play in an NHL game when he suited up in 1993 for the Winnipeg Jets.

He appeared in 120 NHL games during his career, spending even more time in the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League during the next decade. He had a stint as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers from 2013-14 before landing his current job as coach of the AHL's San Diego Gulls.

Eakins' story is familiar for hockey-playing Floridians — having to leave the state to find success. This week, 110 college hockey players from four universities will arrive in Tampa for the NCAA Frozen Four. Only two of them are from Florida, and both spent time on teams in the Northeast before landing on Division I rosters.

It's an exodus that youth hockey programs and the Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to eliminate.

"That's what we're trying to rectify," said Doug Winslow, president of the Tampa Bay Scorpions youth hockey program. "There's no reason now you can't stay home, play on a quality team and get the same exposure you could get if you left home."

•••

Eakins had to leave Florida as an 8-year-old to get the hockey development he needed for a career in the sport. Quinnipiac freshman Chase Priskie, who will take the ice at Amalie Arena on Thursday for an NCAA semifinal against Boston College, says he's fortunate he didn't have to do the same.

At least not right away.

Priskie's mother played hockey at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, so despite being born and raised in Pembroke Pines in South Florida, hockey was a part of his routine from a young age.

"I actually went to my first Panthers game in 1996 when they were in the Stanley Cup finals against the Colorado Avalanche," Priskie said. "My parents were season ticket holders, so my mom claims I'd been to over 100 hockey games before the age of 5."

That exposure brought Priskie to street hockey as a 3-year-old, which soon turned into roller hockey. By age 6 he was on skates and for the next several years, until he moved to Connecticut for prep school, he played for a club team less than 30 minutes from his house.

Priskie's development was fostered by a mother with experience in the sport. But lately, the Lightning has made it a priority to bring hockey into the lives of kids who might not otherwise know the first thing about the game.

On Sept. 14, 2015, the Lightning held a news conference to announce a plan to spend $6 million over the next five years to help grow the sport in the bay area. The initiative, which will receive support from the NHL and the National Hockey League Players Association, was dubbed "Build the Thunder" and will focus, in large part, on reaching elementary and middle school-age kids.

Jay Feaster, former general manager of the Lightning and the team's current executive director of community development, was hopeful about the positive effects the program would have. He was also well aware of the challenges relative to other NHL markets.

"Kids in this area, I think, are born and it's already imprinted on their DNA that they're going to like football, they're going to like baseball," Feaster said. "When we go to these schools, in many, many instances, this is the first time these kids have ever held a street hockey stick. It's not imprinted on their DNA."

But so far, Feaster said, that hasn't seemed to dampen excitement about their program.

He said that since October, Lightning representatives have taught street hockey to physical education classes in 95 schools in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Manatee counties, and they've handed out more than 24,000 street hockey sticks.

The Lightning also sponsors various summer hockey camps and clinics for youth, and this season it took over organization of the area high school hockey league. The league is made up of 12 teams, including Mitchell High in Trinity, which on March 22 won the USA Hockey High School National Championships in Ashburn, Va.

Those kinds of feats leave Feaster feeling confident in the Lightning's grass roots progress.

"None of these kids may ever play beyond street hockey, and none of them may ever become a Lightning season ticket member … but they might watch a hockey game now, and they might follow," he said. "They might be more interested in the sport, and that's a good thing."

Because interest, Winslow knows, is the first step to success.

•••

There's no doubt in Eakins' mind what he would be doing now — or rather what he wouldn't be doing — if his family hadn't moved to Peterborough so long ago.

"That team in Tampa didn't show up until I was a man," he said. "I would have been into probably baseball or football or track and field, something like that. It would have never, ever been hockey."

Eakins said he feels a sense of pride about being one of just nine native Floridians ever to play in the NHL — six of whom entered the league in the past six years — and he's grateful for the impact major-league teams have had on hockey development in nontraditional markets.

Winslow said the Lightning has been a big supporter of the Tampa Bay Scorpions, which boasts three national championships in the under-14 and under-16 divisions. Currently, the Scorpions have an 18AAA team, made up of 17- and 18-year-old players, competing at nationals in San Jose, Calif., the first Florida team from that age group ever to play at that level, Winslow said.

"The tide raises all boats," Winslow said. "As we have more success, we're pushing other organizations to have more success, and that helps all the kids."

Winslow said he saw college scouts at recent Scorpion tournament games, and he believes it's only a matter of time before Florida players land more frequently on college rosters across the nation.

And maybe by then, Eakins won't be in such small company.

"Certainly over the next five to 10 years that's something we do hope to see," Feaster said, "not just that there are more native Floridians that are playing in the league but that also the quality of play on a consistent level rises to the point that players who are born in Florida don't feel the need to leave Florida as they get older."

From youth to pros, hockey sinks its roots in Florida 04/01/16 [Last modified: Saturday, April 2, 2016 9:56pm]
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