Quality of high school hockey in Tampa Bay may surprise you

The Lightning have helped develop prep hockey in the area and have seen players drafted into the NHL and Canadian juniors.
Lightning High School Hockey League players compete in the 2020 all-star game.
Lightning High School Hockey League players compete in the 2020 all-star game. [ CA ECCLES/EARTH-LIFE STUDIOS | Courtesy of the LHSHL ]
Published Apr. 17, 2020|Updated Apr. 17, 2020

TAMPA — When Dan Bubley started coaching high school hockey 17 years ago, if someone had suggested that a player from the Tampa Bay area would be drafted into the NHL, he would not have believed it.

“We would have said, ‘Nah, not going to happen,’ ” the Steinbrenner High coach said. “Now we say, ‘Why can’t it be me? Why can’t it be my son?’ ”

Tampa Bay and Central Florida hockey have come a long way. Nate Smith, who grew up in Hudson, was drafted by the Jets in the third round two years ago. Jake Richard, who grew up in Jacksonville before moving to Lakeland, was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League, part of the junior Canadian Hockey League system, this month.

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Smith played for Mitchell High for two seasons before entering the American junior system and is now at Minnesota State in Mankato. He started out playing ball hockey with a friend. Then when he was 11, that team switched to ice hockey.

It is a familiar development path and one the Lightning have embraced. The organization’s “Build the Thunder” program brings ball hockey into schools to introduce kids to the sport. Tom Garavaglia, the Lightning’s community hockey manager, said a player’s development can start with ball hockey, then go on to learn-to-skate programs, then something like the organization’s “Lightning Made” camps or clinics. Then athletes join rec leagues and maybe move on to travel leagues.

Richard’s main team is Florida Alliance, a travel team out of Estero, but last season he also joined the George W. Jenkins High team, which plays in the Lightning High School Hockey League, after moving to Lakeland. He is the first player to be drafted into the Ontario League out of the Lightning league.

A few others from this part of Florida also have played in Canadian League juniors. Avery Winslow, from Clearwater, came up through the Canadian system and is playing in the Ontario League. Dominik Tmej, born in Bradenton, played two years for Manatee before spending time in the Quebec Major Junior League.

Nate Smith is awarded the Lightning Cup MVP plaque by then-Lightning winger Ryan Callahan.
Nate Smith is awarded the Lightning Cup MVP plaque by then-Lightning winger Ryan Callahan. [ SCOTT AUDETTE | Courtesy of the Lightning ]

Smith, the Winnipeg prospect, sees the value in having players reach these levels. He is aware of who came before him.

Players with Florida roots aren’t unusual in the NHL. Last year’s top draft pick, Jack Hughes, and his older brother, Quinn, a 2018 first-round pick, were born in Orlando while their father was an assistant coach with the Solar Bears but developed in Canada, where the family moved for their father’s career. Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere was born in Pembroke Pines and played in the Florida Junior Panthers program before moving to Connecticut while he was in high school.

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But the examples of Smith, 21, and Richard, 15, make NHL success feel more attainable for area players.

“To see a kid their age make it, now they say, ‘Maybe if I could put in the work, I can be that next-level guy and it’s not so far off,’ ” Jesuit hockey moderator Andy Wood said. “It’s not just a NHL dream that seems far off; now it’s Jake Richard.”

Wood has seen growth in high school and youth hockey in the bay area. He sees learn-to-skate programs “jammed” before high school practices and games, and estimates attendance at double what it was 10 years ago.

Some of that is due to the Lightning effect. Wood’s son, Vincent, is a “Lightning Cup baby.” He was young when the franchise won its only Stanley Cup in 2004, but around then, he told his dad he wanted to be like the players on the ice.

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Bubley also credits Lightning players staying in the area after they retire.

Alumni Jassen Cullimore and Mathieu Garon coach at Jesuit. Dan Girardi and Vinny Lecavalier coach a travel team on which their sons play along with Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s son.

“We’re seeing better coaching because the success of the Lightning means these guys are staying in this community after retirement,” Bubley said. “They’re getting involved in the community hockey.”

Besides coaching from former NHL players making players better, it also has an effect on other coaches. They pick up different pieces they get from the alumni — be it a drill, a play, a mental approach — and take it back to their team, then pass it on from there. The programs the Lightning sponsor try to do the same.

Jake Richard, center, takes a shot during a Lightning High School Hockey League game. Richard was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League.
Jake Richard, center, takes a shot during a Lightning High School Hockey League game. Richard was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League. [ TIM ZELMANSKI | Courtesy of Jake Richard ]

“You have a well-intentioned dad who raises their hands but they don’t have any hockey background,” said Jay Feaster, the Lightning’s vice president of community hockey development. “That’s something else we take seriously. We want to develop programs where we develop coaches.”

When the Lightning started their Build the Thunder ball hockey program, they were going to 15 or so schools a year. Now they visit more than 200. In 2011, the high school hockey league had 385 players. This season it had 625 across 18 varsity teams. For comparison, the Buffalo area has 25 hockey teams out of its 90 high schools.

Wood and Bubley stressed that quantity breeds competition and thus talent.

“I think people would be surprised by the quality of high school hockey down here,” Bubley said. “People don’t even realize it exists, and then when they’re exposed to it, they’re surprised by the quality.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.