I always love walking through airports weighed down with my massive hockey bag, goalie pads and sticks. The looks on people's faces range from curious to frightened and everything in-between. What is always funny to me, when I proudly trudge through airport destinations, is that those looks are fairly commonplace on the faces of Floridians and pretty much anyone else when I tell them that not only was I born and raised in South Florida, but that I also play hockey. To Floridians, hockey, be it ice or roller, occupies very little space within their minds and their shock when told that hockey does in fact exist within the Sunshine State, is almost always followed up with, "how does the ice not melt?" and "I love hockey because of the fights!" The reaction from Massachusettsans, Michiganders, Minnesotans and the like is usually similar, with such people exclaiming that I am "crazy for leaving paradise" or wondering how and why a kid like me ended up in a place where it snows for three out of the four seasons. All these reactions make me laugh and I have always relished my unique origin story but attention should be paid to the current landscape of Florida hockey, because it does exist and it is different from any other state I have played in.
When people think of hockey in Florida, they more often than not will mention something about California and roller hockey. It is well-known that California has a well-established roller hockey scene and it certainly is not a stretch to assume that Florida has one as well. When I was first learning about hockey, my parents enrolled me in our town's local roller hockey league. At the time, it was well-populated with eager parents, coaches and young players spanning a variety of age groups. It was even popular enough that neighboring towns had their own in-house leagues and, at the end of each roller season, each league created an all-star squad to compete for the title of best town in the county. It was informal to a degree but it was a blast and presented kids with an option to play hockey in a place usually lacking it. Unfortunately, that time seems to have passed and many of the roller rinks I played on are empty or being utilized for tennis and pickle ball. What ultimately led to the demise of this once flourishing setting was the fact that roller hockey, at the time, had no real future because most of the really good players hedged their bets and went to play ice hockey. This was how I and many of my Florida friends got introduced to the world of ice hockey and today, the Florida ice hockey world is slowly but steadily gaining traction.
Youth and Junior Hockey in Florida
When I was first starting out, I played strictly in-house ice hockey at a rink nearly twenty minutes from where I lived. Rink distance is an unfortunate cause of the slow hockey growth within Florida with ice arenas sometimes being hours apart (you can imagine my joy playing in Massachusetts where you can walk to about three different rinks in the same area). At this particular arena, where I actually still train, there were options for rec team play or travel competition. These options persisted at the various other rinks which were home to the few A, AA, and AAA travel programs like the Pines Thunder, Florida Junior Panthers, Miami Little Toros, Palm Beach Hawks and Golden Wolves. Although the aforementioned teams were strictly ones based out of South Florida, several other travel programs existed around the state and although they never made much noise on a national level, they served as developmental programs for young and aspiring Florida hockey players. Coupled with the rec and travel teams of Florida, exists the Florida High School Hockey Association and a plethora of junior hockey teams. Although some Florida high school teams are coached by former NHLers and have respectable institutions, they ultimately serve only as a half-step up into the junior hockey ranks.
As a three year veteran of Florida junior hockey, I can note that the junior landscaped fluctuated immensely. Florida junior teams originally participated in the Southeastern Junior Hockey League and the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League but this eventually changed to participation in the Eastern Junior Hockey League and the Empire Junior Hockey League. Now, Florida teams are members of the USPHL and have begun to send more and more players into the NCAA and ACHA ranks. When I played at home, committing to a college team was a rarity and almost no one was able to do so directly from a Florida team. Florida juniors served only as a stepping stone on the way to a college hockey career which was unfortunate considering the presence of multiple top notch junior hockey programs which are home to wonderful coaches, training staffs and facilities. The notion that one needs to leave Florida for a better shot at a high-level college program is still, regrettably, true to this day. Many of the kids I train with in the summer may have played a year or two with a AAA squad or junior team in Florida but ultimately moved on to the NAHL, USHL or another USPHL team up north. Sure, teams like my alma mater, the Florida Eels, have placed a handful of kids in NCAA programs but it is certainly not comparable to other teams who send their players to school straight from their own developmental programs. All this aside, playing junior hockey in Florida was an experience I will certainly never forget. Turns out, it gets pretty hard to beat the routine of training and then laying around in the sun afterwards.
Hockey Excellence in Florida
Although Florida hockey does have its issues, it is slowly becoming more popular and this popularity has been aided not only by those serving in invaluable roles such as rec league coaches and private instructors, but by the presence of excellent high-level college and professional programs. With regard to the college level, several big name schools have club teams which operate under the ACHA banner and provide Florida natives with a highly competitive and local option of play. Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, has long been the gold standard of club hockey excellence and, as recently as last year, claimed an ACHA national championship and is a favorite to repeat again this year. The Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL have hoisted a Stanley Cup in the not so distant past and their continued dominance in today's NHL has enticed young kids to try their hand at becoming the next NHL star. Even minor league teams such as the Florida Everblades, the Orlando Solar Bears, the Pensacola Ice Pilots and the Jacksonville Icemen have found success over the years, infusing their respective cities with a newfound interest in hockey and encouraging the next generation of Floridians to pick up a hockey stick.
More and more Florida natives are making their way to the NHL, NCAA and top-tier junior ranks and blazing a trail for all those who follow. Although still a niche place to play with a way to go before it reaches the level of hockey development seen in northern states, Florida is a pretty neat place to play and the passion of those involved in the hockey scene is both encouraging and necessary. Despite all the odd looks and redundant statements I hear about where I'm from, being a hockey playing Floridian has always given me a sense of pride and I'll continue to help the hockey landscape develop within the state.