The hockey program Joe Rhoads oversees was hatched a generation ago by two USF students from the North who missed the sport. At that point, the Lightning didn’t exist. Neither did nearby competition.
The original USF Ice Bulls played their first organized game in the fall of 1989 against Georgia State University in Atlanta. Practices were held at the nearest rink, off Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County. The team competed in hand-me-down jerseys bought at a bargain rate from the Minnesota North Stars, which shared USF’s green-and-gold color scheme.
Today, Rhoads’ team — still a club program — competes in a league that includes Florida, UCF, the University of Tampa, Florida Atlantic and Miami. Its games inside the sleek AdventHealth Center Ice facility in Wesley Chapel typically draw standing-room-only audiences in a venue that seats 500.
After a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rhoads estimates 75 to 80 players will try out for the 2021-22 squad.
“We’re all pretty much highly organized,” said Rhoads, an accountant by day whose Philadelphia accent remains profound. “Some not so much, but hockey has flourished in Florida, and I think it’s directly related to the Lightning and Panthers, without question.”
In a sense, the hockey world is experiencing global warming. The state represents hockey’s explosion in practically any place in the country where sunscreen is a medicine-cabinet necessity.
In 1999-2000, the Southeast had fewer than 25,000 participants in the sport, according to USA Hockey. Before the pandemic, that number had more than doubled to almost 60,000.
Florida is helping fuel the boom.
Participation in the state has jumped from fewer than 7,000 to almost 17,000 over the past two decades. In 2019-20, only nine states had more USA Hockey-registered players than Florida: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey.
“I know our percentage of growth right now, just in the last year and a half, is about 30 percent in every one of our programs,” said AdventHealth Center Ice CEO and co-owner Gordie Zimmermann, whose facility hosts a smorgasbord of adult and youth leagues and clinics.
“Hockey’s on the map.”
It got on the map in warm-weather states in part because of the sun-splashed success at the top of the sport. Five of the previous six Stanley Cup finals had as finalists the Lightning, Stars, Golden Knights, Predators and Sharks, with the Lightning winning last year. Winning the title leads to a local bump in USA Hockey participation, said Kevin Erlenbach, the group’s assistant executive director of membership.
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It helps that the teams in southern markets are also among the most active in trying to grow the game at the youth level through leagues, camps and promotions.
“There are a lot of really big-market teams that don’t come close to what Tampa does,” Erlenbach said.
Years of grassroots growth are trickling up.
When Tampa first hosted the NCAA Frozen Four in 2012, with Boston College, Minnesota, Union and Ferris State, only one native Floridian competed. This year, there were three natives among UMass, St. Cloud State, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth. Naples’ George Mika won the title with UMass, and two Pasco County products, Mitchell High alumni Nathan Smith and Lucas Sowder, helped Minnesota State advance to its first national semifinals.
Hockey-reference.com lists only three Florida natives who appeared in an NHL game before 2011, including Dade City’s Dallas Eakins. Since then, at least 11 players born in Florida have debuted. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun (Boca Raton), 23, was a first-round draft pick by the Coyotes in 2016 and has played 290 games for them since his NHL debut that year. Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (Pembroke Pines), 28, has appeared in almost 400 career games for the Flyers.
Smith might get there someday. In 2018, he became the first Tampa Bay area native and high school graduate to be drafted when the Jets picked him in the third round.
Though the NHL isn’t yet scouring the state’s college club rosters for talent, it is nonetheless finding its way to Florida.
Zimmermann said NHL scouts have been in his building for junior showcase events, and the owner of one franchise showed up to watch his son compete. Further, the facility recently celebrated 15 graduates from its Global Prospects Academy, which combines elite-level training with an educational curriculum, much like Bradenton’s IMG Academy does with various sports.
“Our kids always left when they were 14 or 15, if they had any talent, and went to Michigan or Canada or Boston to try to get a (Division I) hopeful out of it,” Zimmermann said. “And now they don’t need to leave. They’re coming here to scout the kids.”
Dave Beaudin sees the shift, too.
When he came here from Canada in 1992 around the Lightning’s birth, his job at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy was to convince baseball parents that their 7-year-old outfielder should try hockey, where there are no games in 90-degree weather or rainouts.
Now the hockey director at the Junior Lightning club, Beaudin ticks through the area’s progress. Sixteen junior teams. Nineteen high school programs, including his squad at Mitchell. Fifty video interviews this spring with players from Canada or Michigan or Ohio who want to play here.
That leaves Beaudin and the rest of the local hockey scene facing a polar-opposite problem from what they tackled a generation ago.
“We’ve got more kids that want to play,” Beaudin said, “than there is ice for them to play on.”
Hockey heating up
Membership figures from USA Hockey show the rise of hockey in the Sun Belt in general and Florida specifically:
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