Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Former Lightning center Tucker focuses on youth training with smaller rink

TAMPA — For John Tucker, standing in a formerly empty warehouse, what was missing was as notable as what had been constructed.

"We still need a score clock," the former Lightning center said as he watched a group of kids skate on the hockey rink built inside the 15,000-square-foot space.

But other than that, Tucker added, "It's really starting to turn into something special."

Xtra Ice, in a nondescript building in a nondescript neighborhood just north of Tampa International Airport, has been open for about a year. But Tucker hopes an official grand opening in the near future, with a likely Lightning presence, will help spread the word about what he believes is a unique concept in the Tampa Bay area:

A hockey facility with a smaller rink — 140 feet long, 65 feet wide compared to a regulation NHL rink of 200 by 85— totally devoted to instruction and introducing kids to the game.

"We're trying to find our niche here as far as being open to every organization," said Tucker, 48, who runs the facility. "We want to have kids from Brandon, Clearwater, Oldsmar all come to train and get better."

The smaller rink, a training concept catching on, especially in the Northeast, is ideal for that mission, he said: "The kids are always around the puck. A stronger player is still dominant, but a weaker player can touch the puck and gets a chance to score, which is kind of what you want. You want kids to touch the puck and get involved with the game."

Exactly the sentiment expressed by Oldsmar resident Chris Reed, who is financing the facility with partners Ron Benson and Doug Winslow.

Reed, 43, is executive vice president for operations and client services at One Touch Direct. Benson, 47, of Safety Harbor is One Touch's CEO, and Winslow, 46, of Tampa is president of Ignite Media Solutions.

All have hockey-playing kids and deep pockets, a good thing considering that between rent, maintenance, utilities and equipment, Reed said the group has spent "north of hundreds of thousands of dollars."

The business — which is registered in Florida as a nonprofit and has applied to the federal government for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) — "has been operating at a loss," Reed said, though he added, "we're ready to turn a corner."

"I feel like it's worth it for the Tampa hockey market," said Reed, who approached his friend Tucker about running the facility. "Our objective is for kids to go to Division I, Division II colleges because of training they've gotten at that rink."

"We're not trying to compete with all the other ice sheets in the area," he added. "We're trying to focus solely on training. There's a big need for that. That's why we did it; to build another sheet to get kids to train. It's all about training."

Tucker, who played for the Lightning from 1992-96 and was part of the franchise's first playoff team, is an instructor. So is Hugo Belanger, 43, a 1990 eighth-round pick of the Blackhawks.

"It's a great setting for the fact that you have people who really care about the game," Trinity's Michael Pedone said while watching his 11-year-old daughter, Molly, work with Belanger on a stick-handling drill. "We're using this rink because we definitely have high aspirations. We want to see her get into the Olympics one day. We're here three or four times a week (during the summer)."

"At the bigger rinks, sometimes, some kids don't ever touch the puck," Tucker said. "As a parent, you want your kid to touch the puck and get involved in the game. With this size rink, everyone is involved in the game."

Now if they can just get that score clock installed.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]

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