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Florida roots won't keep Molly Pedone off ice

Molly Pedone, 13, trained by former Lightning player Stan Neckar, left, has landed a spot at a top prep hockey program in Minnesota.
Molly Pedone, 13, trained by former Lightning player Stan Neckar, left, has landed a spot at a top prep hockey program in Minnesota.
Published Mar. 5, 2016

TRINITY — Molly Pedone stood in tall, black socks in her family's double-deep garage, admiring the metal water heater covered in dents and black scuff marks positioned against the back wall.

To most it's just your everyday household appliance. To Pedone, a 13-year-old girl with dreams of carving out a future in the male-dominated sport of hockey, it's a tribute to her persistence.

For three years Pedone, who weighs just 93 pounds and stands 5 feet, 3 inches, has devoted her life to hockey, giving up other activities and even conventional public schooling to focus her time on opportunities in the sport not widely available to youths in the Sunshine State.

So every day, taking advice she read online from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, Pedone shoots pucks into a regulation-sized goal in that garage, aiming for 100 shots. Now, a net separates the goal from the water heater, but when she first began, errant pucks had been known to cause some damage.

"There's even a couple marks on the ceiling," said Molly, smiling. "(Mom) doesn't seem to think it's so funny, but I do."

Soon, though, Molly won't be limited to makeshift practice sessions where her parents keep their cars at their Trinity home.

On Feb. 17, Molly signed commitment papers to attend Shattuck-St. Mary's, a prestigious hockey prep school in Faribault, Minn., that produced current and former NHL players Sidney Crosby, Ryan Malone and Jonathan Toews.

At the boarding school, she'll have the opportunity to play on a girls hockey team — the first native Floridian to do so at Shattuck — getting one step closer to reaching her ultimate goal.

"I want to make it to the Olympics," Molly said, "and I want to win the gold medal."

Molly's mother, Suzanne, grew up loving hockey in Chicago. She enjoyed the sport so much that when she moved to Tampa, she and her girlfriends attended the very first regular-season Tampa Bay Lightning game, a 7-3 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 7, 1992.

When Suzanne met Molly's father, Michael, a New Yorker, she assumed he was a hockey fan. As soon as she learned otherwise, Suzanne said she gave it to him straight.

"I basically kind of told him, 'I really can't date someone who doesn't enjoy hockey,' " she recalled, "'because I really love it.'"

During their first few months of dating, Suzanne took Michael to a game at the old Thunderdome, now Tropicana Field.

"We could touch the ceiling, that's how high we were," Michael said. "I was there for five minutes, and I was hooked."

Because of her parents' affinity for the sport, Molly grew up attending Lightning games with them and her older sister, Emily, but as is the case with most Floridians, her experience was limited to spectating. That all changed the day Molly gained a new elementary school classmate, a girl who had just moved to Pasco County from Minnesota.

"That's when Molly started going, 'Can I get a pair of skates?' " Suzanne said. "We said no. I mean, looking at her size, we actually said, 'Uh, stay with tennis.' "

But Molly wouldn't take no for an answer.

Months later, the 10-year-old wrote to Santa Claus, asking for hockey skates. No longer able to deny her daughter's request, Suzanne went all over town searching for a pair. On Christmas morning, they were under the tree.

A few years and several pairs later, Molly wears them every chance she gets.

Her parents started her in skate classes at Tampa Bay Skating Academy in Oldsmar.

"I didn't really know how to turn at first," Molly said. "I just skated straight. I was a board-hugger."

Pretty soon, though, she got the hang of it. Before long, she began playing for a statewide girls team, the Lady Vipers, and taking lessons from Stan Neckar, a former NHL player who won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004.

"I think she can see the ice really well when she plays, and she's a smart player on the ice. She can pass the puck, be patient with the puck and create a play," said Neckar, 40, who said he gives lessons to about 40 kids. "Sometimes the parents want it more, and the kids don't care. She's the one who constantly wants to get better."

After an hourlong session with Neckar on a Wednesday afternoon, Molly took a quick shower then sat with her computer, covered in hockey stickers, at the dining room table. Her mother quizzed her on Constitutional amendments.

"Imagine your neighbor claims you threw a baseball — or a puck — a puck through his window, and he wants you to pay for it," she said, hoping the hockey lingo would keep her daughter's attention on the day's lesson.

Once Molly's skill and attention to hockey increased in the sixth grade, she left Seven Springs Middle School for spring break and never went back, choosing the Florida Virtual School route to allow more time on the ice.

Before that, her parents, both small business owners, spent more than a year bringing Molly to and from ice skating rinks at all times of the day before and after school, including 6 a.m. sessions in Clearwater.

"We'd hurry up and shower there, and then it would be offensive driving all the way back to get her to school on time," Michael said. "We did that for a while, but it was getting to be too much on her."

Since switching to online school, Molly began taking lessons from Neckar twice a week and working with a personal trainer at the YMCA twice a week for off-ice conditioning. On the weekends she plays on a boys recreation league hockey team, unless she's traveling for tournaments with the Lady Vipers, where she plays forward.

For the past few years, Molly's parents have enrolled her in hockey camps all over the country. But one particular camp last summer at Shattuck put her hockey future in motion.

At the end of the weeklong camp, Molly received the Amanda Kessel Award, named after the U.S. Olympic hockey player, for being the most skilled player. She also caught the coaches' eyes.

In October 2015, Molly was invited to try out for the team at Shattuck, so she flew to the school 50 miles south of Minneapolis.

Her maternal grandmother died the day before she took the ice and during a practice a puck cracked her skate. Still, Molly refused to give up, finishing the workout with the Shattuck girls team that had 100 percent placement in college programs last season.

Four months later, Molly's parents got an email from the school saying it had seen enough on the ice. She returned to Minnesota once more for a meeting with school officials, who offered her admission.

Upon learning she was in, Suzanne said, Molly cried.

"She's a very hard worker. She's the kind of kid who will be a good teammate," said Gordie Stafford, director of the hockey program at Shattuck and father of Winnipeg Jets right wing Drew Stafford. "She had a lot of those sort of tangibles and intangibles that we want to be a part of the program."

During the 45-minute car ride from their Trinity home to the rink in Tampa two weeks ago, Suzanne asked her daughter why she couldn't shake the sport.

"I don't get it," she told Molly. "You get sweaty, you get stinky, you have to play with dudes."

But for Molly it's a feeling, she said, that she can't explain.

"I can't really describe it, other than every time I step on the ice you get this rush," she said. "It's fun, and there's always something new you can learn, so it's not like you're doing the same thing over and over."

Starting in August, while the rest of her Florida friends start high school in Pasco County, Molly will move 1,500 miles northwest, alongside one of her parents, who will likely live there during the first year to help her adjust.

Only then, for the first time, location and gender won't be obstacles for a girl shooting for gold.

Contact Kelly Parsons at kaparsons@tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.

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