Thanks in part to the Lightning, hockey is experiencing a huge warming trend

The hockey program Joe Rhoads oversees was developed a generation ago by two North USF students who missed the sport. At that time, the Lightning did not exist. No competition nearby either.

The first USF Ice Bulls played their first staged game in the fall of 1989 against Georgia State University in Atlanta. Practice took place at the nearest ice rink near Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County. The team competed in jerseys bought cheaply from the former NHL franchise of the Minnesota North Stars, which shared the USF’s green and gold color scheme.

Today, the Rhoads team – still a non-NCAA sanctioned club program – compete in a league that includes Florida, UCF, University of Tampa, Florida Atlantic and Miami. His games inside the elegant AdventHealth Center Ice facility at Wesley Chapel usually draw a standing audience only in a venue that can seat 500 people.

After a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, Rhoads estimates that 75 to 80 players will try for the 2021-22 team.

“We’re all very well organized,” said Rhoads, a daytime accountant whose Philly accent remains deep. “Some not so much, but hockey flourished in Florida, and I think it’s directly related to the Lightning and the Panthers, without a doubt.”

In a sense, the hockey world is experiencing global warming. USF and the state as a whole, for that matter, represent a microcosm of the sports explosion in the South – or virtually any place in the country where sunscreen is a necessity in medicine cabinets.

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 nearly 60,000.

Florida, of course, is helping fuel the boom.

Attendance here has grown from less than 7,000 to almost 17,000 over the past two decades. In 2019-2020, only nine states in the country had more American hockey players than Florida: Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Jersey.

“I know our percentage of growth right now, just over the past year and a half, is around 30 percent in each of our programs,” said AdventHealth Center Ice CEO and co-owner Gordie Zimmermann. , which accommodates an assortment of adults. and youth leagues and clinics.

“Hockey is on the map.

It got there, in part, because of sunny success at the top of the sport. The Lightning, Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights and Nashville Predators have all won or competed for the Stanley Cup in the past five years. Winning the title leads to a local increase in participation in USA Hockey, said Kevin Erlenbach, deputy executive director of group membership.

It helps that the teams in the southern markets are also among the most active in trying to develop the game among young people through leagues, camps and promotions.

“There are a lot of teams from really big markets that don’t come close to what Tampa is doing,” Erlenbach said.

Years of grassroots growth go back to the top.

When Tampa first hosted the Frozen Four in 2012, only one native Floridian attended. This year, there were three of them. George Mika of Naples won the NCAA National Championship with the University of Massachusetts, and two Pasco County products, Mitchell High alumni Nathan Smith and Lucas Sowder, helped the State of Minnesota qualify for his first national semi-finals.

The Winnipeg Jets selected Nathan Smith, a New Port Richey-born forward and Mitchell High School graduate, in the third round of the 2018 NHL Draft. He is believed to be the first Tampa Bay area native to be drafted by an NHL franchise. [ RICK BOOTS | Rick Boots | Cedar Rapids RoughRiders ] only lists three Florida natives who played in an NHL game prior to 2011 (including Dallas Eakins of Dade City). Since then, at least 11 Floridians have made their debuts. Jakob Chychrun (Boca Raton) scored a hat trick earlier this year for the Coyotes, Shayne Gostisbehere (Pembroke Pines) has been in nearly 400 career games for the Flyers, and Devils center Jack Hughes (Orlando) has was the first choice 2019.

Smith could make it happen someday too. In 2018, he became the first Tampa Bay area native and high school graduate to be drafted when the Winnipeg Jets selected him in the third round.

And while the NHL isn’t just scouring the state’s college club rosters for talent, the league is finding its way to Florida nonetheless.

Zimmermann said NHL scouts were in his building for junior demonstration events and the owner of an NHL franchise showed up to watch his son compete. Additionally, the facility recently celebrated 15 graduates of its Global Prospects Academy, which combines elite-level training with an educational program, much like IMG Academy in Bradenton does with various sports.

“Our kids would always leave when they were 14 or 15, if they had any talent, and would go to Michigan, Canada or Boston to try and get a (Division I) hope out of it,” Zimmermann said. “And now they don’t have to go anymore. They come here to spot the children.

Related: Lightning’s journey to the Stanley Cup crosses the homeland of ice hockey

Dave Beaudin also sees the change.

When he arrived from Canada in 1992 around the birth of the Lightning, his job at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy was to convince baseball parents that their 7-year-old outfielder should try out hockey, where there are no games. at 90 degrees or rain.

Now director of hockey at the Junior Lightning club, Beaudin follows the progress of the region. Sixteen junior teams. Nineteen high school programs (including his team at Mitchell High). Fifty video interviews this spring with players from Canada, Michigan or Ohio who want to play here.

This leaves Beaudin and the rest of the local hockey scene with a problem that is the opposite of what they faced a generation ago.

“We have more kids who want to play,” said Beaudin, “than there is ice they can play on. “

Hockey warms up

USA Hockey membership figures show the rise of hockey in the Sun Belt in general and Florida in particular:


South East : 24 824

Florida: 6,798

Texas: 7,060

Tennessee: 1,271

Nevada: 1,185

California: 17,355


South-East: 39,807

Florida: 10,856

Texas: 10,909

Tennessee: 2,430

Nevada: 940

California: 20,404


South-East: 59 363

Florida: 16,956

Texas: 15,221

Tennessee: 5,288

Nevada: 3,235

California: 32,823

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