Youth hockey in Florida has surged into legitimacy in recent years. One walk through the ISF, or Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, seeing all of the championship banners hanging from the rafters and it comes sharply into view.
Just last month, the Florida Fire Ants traveled to Minnesota and upset youth hockey teams from all over the country.
The Florida Fire Ants is a team of kids that were born in 2005 or later. Typically, the 8- and 9-year-olds play in USA Hockey competitions. However, this year the Amateur Athletic Union, a different governing body, offered its first national championship tournament. It was an opportunity head coach Al Hargest and assistant Gary Parkhurst simply could not pass up.
"It was just a chance for our kids to play and they were ready," Hargest said.
Without an AAU state or regional qualifying tournament, the Fire Ants accepted an at-large bid for the national tournament. This put them in a lower-division pool where they had to go against four other teams to make the elimination rounds.
They went 4-0 and out-scored their opponents 70-3.
"We had some parents angry at the scores and saying that our kids looked too big to be 2005's (born in 2005)," Parkhurst said. "Our kids are big compared to the other kids (at the tournament)."
Parkhurst and Hargest have mercy-rule type measures in place for when they are dominating other teams, like requiring a certain number of passes before anyone can take a shot and allowing just one player to shoot while the others must pass.
However, goal-differential was a tiebreaking factor in the tournament, so the Fire Ants could not hold back in their pool play finale, a 21-2 victory against a team from Dallas.
In elimination play, the Fire Ants defeated the New Haven, Conn., squad in the semifinals 12-3 and won the final against the team from Tulsa, Okla., 3-0, despite facing a talented goalie on the Tulsa team.
"It was super-fun," forward/defenseman Skogen Schrott said. "When you actually get that medal placed on your neck, it's a memory that I will never forget."
The disillusioned northern hockey clubs will not soon forget, either.
"Now they know what to expect when we come back," Hargest said.
It speaks to a growing trend in Florida, where youth hockey is not only rising to emergence, but gaining prominence.
Last year, the Tampa Scorpions Tier 2 U16 AA hockey team won a national title in Troy, Mich. This year, the Florida Alliance AAA Hockey Club in Estero has the nation's top-ranked Independent US 2004 (born in 2004) team.
How is this even possible? Kids in Florida have to share ice not just with other youth hockey players but with adult and recreation league players as well as figure skating clubs and others. But they counter with the growing youth hockey use of dryland training.
Dryland training has been around for decades but historically has been scoffed at by the hockey elite. However, through the work of legendary hockey trainer Sean Skinner, dryland training is rapidly gaining global recognition.
"It's no longer about where you live," Skinner said. "What matters is what you do and how long you do it."
Skinner has a line of instructional videos as well as pages of dryland training aides for sale, not unlike those used in other sports. Hargest has some of the training videos and has brought Skinner in to work with his team.
"You need 10,000 hours of work to become an expert with a skill," Skinner said. "Kids in California were playing roller hockey for six-to-eight hours a day but kids that were practicing on ice-only were practicing once or twice a week."
This plays to the advantage of Florida kids who can spend most of the year outside.
"Roller-Blading has helped a lot," Skogen Schrott said. "That and we play street hockey every day for two hours."
Skinner recounted a story told to him by Anatoli Tarasov, considered, "the father of Russian hockey." During the 1970s, Tarasov took two Red Army hockey teams that were basically even, that had split 4-3 in seven head-to-head matches.
Tarasov sent one group to training only on dry land for eight weeks with one on-ice practice. The other group practiced only on-ice for eight weeks. According to Skinner, Tarasov said that the dryland team annihilated the ice-only team 7-1.
"It's not just about weights and core training, you can develop skills using dryland training techniques," Skinner said. "Astute people are finding out that you can develop skills on dry land."
Thus, the biggest disadvantage for Florida-based youth hockey players is turning into an advantage. Couple it with the growing enrollment in Florida youth hockey and you have a recipe for success.
"The future (of youth hockey in Florida) looks bright," Hargest said. "We have more kids than we've ever had and it keeps growing."
Hargest and Parkhurst have coached the same group of kids since they entered the league five years ago and continue to grow with the team.
Hargest said that when they started in the Mites age group, there were just 40 kids. The ranks have swollen to over 100 now.
The Mites will be without the 11 kids from the Fire Ant squad as they move up into the Squirts age group and have already started practicing for the season.