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Hockey is HOT in Largo

There's a new game in town.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning remain off the ice, kids in Largo are tying on their in-line skates, strapping on pads and taking over basketball courts to play street hockey.

"It's great," said Steve Morett, 13, who plays every Friday afternoon at the city's Southwest Recreation Complex on Vonn Road. "There's a lot of action."

Organizer Andrew Hobbs, a recreation specialist at Southwest, said he decided to bring the game to Largo after watching a demonstration by Lightning players.

"We designed it for the street kids who were already playing hockey out in the streets around the rec center," Hobbs said.

"Basically, we gave them some place to play."

Recreation centers in other cities have begun to offer street hockey programs, but Hobbs persuaded Largo's recreation leaders to go one step further and offer hockey for 8- to 14-year-olds on in-line skates. Kids in other programs play in sneakers, Hobbs said.

Since its beginning four weeks ago, Largo's program has grown drastically.

Hobbs said he started "with 11 guys. Now we're up to 26."

Some come to play from as far away as Palm Harbor.

And the program is no longer "all guys. Two of the players are girls," Hobbs said.

Teams play on Friday afternoons from 3 to 5 on two side-by-side basketball courts that have been secured with an orange plastic fencing. It takes Hobbs two hours each Friday morning to set the poles, attach the fencing and prepare the courts.

Then, for two hours, two teams of six youngsters each use their hockey sticks to maneuver the hard, hollow, yellow ball, which is about the size of a tennis ball, into the nets on each end of the courts.

Some of the players are experienced, but most are still learning the game.

When the youngsters leave, Hobbs has to take everything down quickly before the courts are taken over by a dog obedience class.

Perhaps the best part of the hockey program is the cost. For those with a valid recreation card, it costs $1 per session. Those without a card can play for $2.

Although many of the players have their own equipment, helmets and safety padding, those that don't are outfitted with donations from the Lightning and a Largo store, Play It Again Sports, that sells used sporting equipment.

Hobbs said so far, no one has been seriously injured. Part of the credit for that, Hobbs said, goes to the protective padding the players must wear.

"They look like soldiers out there," Hobbs said, referring to the players' elbow and knee pads and shin guards. Wrist protection is also recommended and will soon be required.

In addition to the regular hockey rules, rules for these particular courts are strictly enforced, Hobbs said.

No cursing.

No fighting or dangerous play.

Protective gear required.

No jewelry.

No bubble gum.

Sandy Bauer's son Danny plays hockey every week at Southwest. Mrs. Bauer said she often tags along to watch.

"It's great," Mrs. Bauer said. "It gives them something to do. Too bad there aren't other teams at other rec centers for them to play."

Hobbs said he has been pressured by some of the adults in the neighborhood to set up a time for them.

"They're already coming over and playing on the court without the walls," Hobbs said.