The Tampa Bay Lightning knocked off the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Tuesday night, shining a glimmer of hope on their playoff aspirations. During the game's first intermission, members of a youth hockey team skated onto the ice with more than just aspirations. They skated out with a national championship trophy.
The Tampa Bay Scorpions Tier 2 U16 AA hockey team drew applause at the Tampa Bay Times Forum after recently winning a national title in Troy, Mich.
The Scorpions faced competition from across the country, and after losing their first game to the second-seeded Affton, Mo., team, they rebounded to advance out of pool play, defeat the top-seeded Delaware Ducks 4-3 and then won a thrilling 2-1 final against Affton to claim the national title.
Wes Schweiger, 16, scored the go-ahead goal with less than four minutes to play, and despite a furious push from the Affton team in the final minutes, the Scorpions prevailed.
"That goal was awesome, but what stands out to me was the last three minutes of the game, after they had pulled their goaltender, they way we held up on defense," Schweiger said.
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How does a Florida hockey team compete with Northern teams, and Canadian teams for that matter?
"We're a passing, puck-control team," assistant coach Carl Napoli said.
Head coach Brian Lugo added to that.
"We're all about possession. It's a new style that the world hasn't really seen, yet," Lugo said.
The Tampa Bay Scorpions have a colorful history that has shaped them into what they are today.
"These boys have been together for so long, passing comes naturally to them," Napoli said.
Many of the boys on the current Scorpions team were teammates as 5- and 6-year-olds in a roller hockey league in New Port Richey, led by Napoli and current assistant coach Kurt Nelson.
"Kids learn to be really good with the puck and learn more stick work (in roller hockey)," Napoli said. "It's a different twist on the boys' development."
In 2008, the team moved to ice hockey at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar and eventually combined with another team, Lugo's Oldsmar Raiders.
"It was a tougher process on the parents than the players," Lugo said. "The parents are used to rooting against the other team, the players all go to school together, they are friends anyway, but once they (parents) saw the caliber of the new team and how good they were in just their first tournament, it made the transition much easier."
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Getting ice time was a problem, as it is for any Florida-based hockey team. Lugo pointed out that it can cost as much as $380 an hour to get ice time at one of the few rinks in the Tampa area. The coaches had to get creative. They had to do it in a Florida way, in a Southern way, a way that didn't sit well with folks from cooler climates.
"There is a total lack of respect for Florida hockey up there," Nelson said. "It was a shock to them all (kids and coaches)."
Northerners could not endure that Southerners, Floridians at that, could rival and in most cases beat their own youth hockey teams.
"They were very vocal about it," Lugo said. "They would chant, 'Go-home Flor-ida' and tell us we didn't know anything about hockey; most times we'd be beating them 5-2."
The Scorpions could only muster two practices a week on the ice. It forced them to get creative with their training techniques.
Then the Scorpions got a boost from former Lightning great John Tucker, who helped build a micro rink called Xtra Ice near Tampa's Leto High School. The rink is just 140 feet long instead of the typical 200 feet.
"It gave us the opportunity to learn how to react much quicker to everything," Lugo said.
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Reactions were mixed as the Scorpions lined up just outside the rink at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Tuesday during the first intermission. Goalie Trent Parker stood at the front of the line as Senator and Lightning players skated off to the opposite side.
"All I was thinking was, 'Don't trip,' " Parker said.
Parker led his team onto the ice for recognition from the 15,000-plus fans and the reception was raucous, with some fans pounding the glass in encouragement for the young Scorpions.
"All the work put in beforehand, the practices, winning states, the road there, it all seemed worth it when we walked out there," national tournament MVP Reed Nichols said.
Former Lightning great Dave Andreychuk was there to congratulate the team.
"To me, they (Scorpions) are a symbol of where we're going in this state," Andreychuk said. "When I played in Canada as a youth, I never dreamed of winning a national title in Florida but that's just what they have done."