With the Olympic break heading towards an exciting conclusion and NHL teams getting ready to fire things back up going into the trade deadline, I’d like to take a moment to step away from my role here as a Florida Panthers contributor and take a look at something personal to me. While “Sun Belt” hockey has yet to truly take off, and our friends north of the border clamoring to take a team from Florida or Arizona and plant them in Winnipeg or Hamilton, there is something that cannot be denied about what hockey has become in the south. I can only speak personally about the growth of the sport in my home state of Florida, but from where it was pre- Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992, and the Florida Panthers in 1993, to what it is now, can only be called a glowing success.
The personal part of this story, and what I am really writing this about, is college hockey in Florida. I attended and played for the University of Florida. This year, the team has qualified for the ACHA Div. III National Finals for the first time in 9 seasons thanks to closing the season with a 16-game win streak. Hosting the tournament is top national seed Florida Gulf Coast. Also qualifying is the University of Central Florida, whose season included a weekend trip to Hofstra and Albany, winning both games. Other colleges in Florida that ice a hockey team include Florida State, South Florida, Florida Atlantic, Embry Riddle, North Florida, and Florida Tech.
No, this is not NCAA hockey. It is officially a club sport. There are no scholarships handed out, no recruiting visits from coaches. There’s no future on the ice for the vast majority of the players. These are kids playing because they can and they want to. In most cases, they are paying to play for their school, trading weekend keggers for cramped bus trips to play a game Friday night and Saturday afternoon and head home. They fundraise by asking girlfriends to sell t-shirts and pucks (that players paid to make) during the game. There is no coverage in the school paper, no booster clubs or student sections. Games are played on ice that still has fresh ruts from the 4-hour public skate sessions that ended right before the warm-ups. Playing at Florida means practicing on-ice just once a week, in Jacksonville, about a 90 minute drive from campus in Gainesville. Imagine trying to convince a college freshman to pay a fee to play for UF, drive 90 minutes just to practice, giving up your Wednesday nights and weekends from October through March, to play on a hockey team that possibly 100 people on a campus of 50,000+ know about. This is hockey on a basic level. Play because it’s fun.
And yet schools all across the south are succeeding. 11 of the 12 teams in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference now have hockey teams, and there is now a SEC year-end tournament. There is a tournament in Savannah, Georgia that just completed its 12th year of handing out the Thrasher Cup. It hosts Florida, Florida State, Georgia, and Georgia Tech, which has consistently sold out the 10,000 seat Savannah Civic Center (the Gators won it this year). This year, it added South Carolina and the Citadel.
While those that just know hockey in the south as the Panthers, Lightning, Thrashers, and Coyotes, there is so much more that the growth of the NHL into the south has done. It’s the youth programs, the high school leagues that didn’t exist before the NHL came down, the birth of the Southeast Junior Hockey League, and so much more. Growing up, the nearest rink to my house was about an hour away. Now, there are 2 more rinks that are closer to my childhood home.
Yes, this was pretty much a selfish article to promote the success of my alma mater’s hockey season. I mean 16 straight wins, a Thrasher Cup, and a national finals berth isn’t bad. But there is more to southern hockey then most casual observers probably realize. And while most of the things I mentioned might be commonplace to someone from Minnesota or Manitoba, it wasn’t always the case down here, and college hockey is still a long way away from being recognized on anything other than a local level. The NHL expansion was a big reason for the growth of hockey and the continuing success of the sport where no one thought it could exist.
For those interested, the SEC hockey tournament takes place this weekend in Pelham, Alabama. The national finals will be held the following weekend, March 10-13, at the Germain Arena in Ft. Myers, Florida. Oh yea, the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four will be played in Tampa Bay.
Don’t worry, I am fully aware that the Florida Panthers are expected to be headline makers at the trade deadline, and I’ll get my attention focused over the coming week. It should be fun…