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Hockey enthusiasts play on dry "ice'

There is no hockey lockout in Land O'Lakes.

Every Sunday, players face off at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex gymnasium off Collier Parkway.

Gino Mazza, 10, likes soccer and baseball but says, "Hockey's funner. It gives you exercise. You don't stop."

Wesley Chapel's Felix Rodriguez, 16, who brought his 30-year-old cousin, Rene Goderich, to the gym last Sunday, said, "I love hockey _ the running, the hitting. It's constantly moving around."

Mazza and Rodriguez are among the 20 to 25 youngsters lined up at the front doors every Sunday at 1 p.m., according to recreation leader Patrick Flood, who also plays during the open adult sessions that follow from 2 to 4 p.m.

"They're just local kids, but once they pass through the doors, they turn into hockey players," he said.

Young and old alike meet once a week to play a sport that evolved on the frozen surfaces of Canada and the northern United States. The southern version, often played on roller blades, is contested in sneakers in Land O'Lakes. These boys and men may not be playing on ice, but, hey, neither are the National Hockey League players these days.

Some of the locals, like season ticket holder Flood, say they miss the Lightning games at the Thunderdome in St. Petersburg. Others are fed up with yet another baseball strike and the NHL lockout by the owners. Most, however, agree that playing sure beats watching.

"It's challenging, especially if you get fair teams," said Justin Gualducci, 11, of Land O'Lakes. "I like playing. I just go for the ball."

Whether playing with a street hockey ball or plastic puck, the players have a ball participating in such a fast-paced sport. Some, like Land O'Lakes' Jeremiah Chavez, 11, prefer scoring. Mazza has taken quite a liking to preventing goals as a net minder. Mazza, who lists goalie Daren Puppa as his favorite Lightning player, often guards the nets during the adult games.

"He's not afraid," Flood said. "He'll take slap shots in the chest, he'll take it in the leg and get right back up again."

People have come to the recreation complex to play hockey for two years now. It all started in the summer of 1993 with roller hockey games in the parking lot, followed by match ups on the nearby basketball and tennis courts.

Land O'Lakes recreation supervisor Jon Buckle took a seminar in St. Petersburg last winter, and the hockey program has since moved indoors, he said, to prevent injuries from playing on the pavement and to preserve the outdoor courts. Day camp took precedence in the gym last summer, but the floor hockey program resumed in September.

Buckle, for one, can relate to the newcomers' experience. "I had a blast (playing hockey) at the seminar," he recalled. "At first I didn't want to participate, but they put me in goal (as a goalkeeper in full pads) and I did not want to stop playing once I got started. There's been an interest in hockey for a long time, but nobody had put anything together."

As in virtually all team sports, there is a camaraderie among the floor hockey players in Land O'Lakes. The newcomers listen intently to tips from kids and adults who have played the game in such northern cities as Boston, Detroit, New York and Pittsburgh.

Flood, a 20-year-old who hails from Detroit, is among the Florida transplants delighted for an opportunity to resume their love affair with hockey. "I love playing it," he said. "My dad had me skating as soon as I learned to walk. I played two years of juniors and dad played in the Detroit city leagues before he went off to the Vietnam War."

Hockey is on the rise in Florida with father-and-son sharing the game, brothers lining up as teammates or friends opposing one another. Just ask Victor Rice, 12, and his brother Nick, 7, who pedal their bikes to the recreation complex every Sunday to play hockey.