It may come as a surprise, but the state of Florida has a robust college hockey scene developing under its’ sunshine. While some institutions founded hockey teams in the 1990s, it took until the mid-2000s for the sport to find stable footing throughout colleges.
Florida now has eight public and private universities with men’s ice-hockey clubs competing in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division 3 along with the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) Eagles having a second team competing in the ACHA Division 2. There are also four institutions forming the East Florida Collegiate Hockey Conference which play alongside these ACHA teams.
These teams are no slouches when it comes to their on-ice product. Each year, multiple teams from Florida qualify for the ACHA Division 3 National tournament. Besides qualifying for the tournament, the FGCU Eagles have had the most consistent success over the last decade, winning the ACHA Division 2 Championship in 2012, 2016, 2018, and 2019 along with their Division 3 team finishing second in 2005, 2009, and 2015.
Florida College Hockey Finding Recruiting Foothold
As teams become more and more competitive in Florida, institutions across the state have seen increased interest from high schools players all around the world. At first, when there was little infrastructure for hockey in Florida, bringing high-end talent to the state was nigh impossible. Now, with multiple competitive teams consistently reaching Nationals, Florida universities have been able to expand their recruiting efforts.
As said by Matthew Maida, the director of communications with FGCU hockey:
We have seen a consistent increase in players attending our tryouts every season. The Eagles have continuously drawn elite talents from across the country as the warm weather of Southwest Florida and on-ice success serve as a draw for nearly every type of player.
The quality of the players that are interested and attracted to FGCU for both their education and the sport of hockey improves every season, so much so that we have even started to get inquiries from NCAA D1 players looking for a change. I could never had imagined the hockey would get so competitive and the player personnel so talented when we started and every season we are still surprised at just how good our recruits are when they hit the ice.
This increased interest isn’t unique to FGCU. The University of South Florida (USF) Bulls, one of Florida’s older college hockey teams dating back to 1989, regularly sees 75 players attending their yearly tryouts. In contrast, the University of Tampa (UT) Spartans has a fairly new collegiate hockey team, which was founded in 2011. Despite being a new team, UT has averaged around 70 players attending their yearly tryouts over the last three seasons.
Local Talent is Growing Throughout Florida
It’s more than just sunshine that is growing college hockey in Florida. With two professional hockey franchises in Florida, the sport has received more attention over the last 20 to 25 years than any time in the state’s history. With interest in the sport growing, local hockey franchises set off on a grassroots effort to build youth and high school leagues throughout the state.
The culmination of these efforts led to organizations like the Lightning High School Hockey League and the Florida Scholastics Hockey League which provide organized competitive play alongside junior efforts. The players coming out of these leagues have played an important role for college hockey in Florida, allowing Universities to fill out their roster with talented, local players.
As Daniel Clifford, a former forward for the University of Florida Gators ice-hockey team said:
The great thing about hockey in Florida is the continuity of it. Typically, the caliber of players coming to play at this level will go to highschool and play travel hockey and then decide whether or not to continue to play at college. This is beneficial due to the familiarity with some of the kids coming in. It gives them some chemistry that can lighten the learning curve and accelerate their growth in college. Also, it helps keep the numbers up as you see 3 or 4 kids from the same team coming in together and all deciding to play for the University.
Marketing College Hockey in Florida is a Struggle
Florida is, first and foremost, a football state, making it difficult for any other sports team to thrive. With hockey being a niche sport on campus, local media rarely have the resources to give teams coverage outside of specific rivalry games. This can somewhat be mitigated by university media but the visibility is still sparse at best.
Since the majority of the hockey teams in Florida are student-led organizations, the burden of marketing often falls on the same people playing in the games. While players do what they can to spread the word around campus and on social media, the majority of students have no idea that their school has a hockey team. Oftentimes, they find out by seeing a player wearing their jersey to a football game or handing out flyers at a campus event.
However, once a team qualifies for a major event like Nationals, they can receive a large media blast to accompany the event. For example, when the University of Tampa reached their first Nationals in 2016, they were featured on the local NBC lifestyle show, ‘Daytime.’
Success on the ice also helps draw students and local fans to the ice. As teams qualify for Nationals, they are able to draw larger crowds, sometimes in the 400 to 500 range for big games. While these numbers aren’t jaw-dropping, they are significantly larger than five or ten years ago.
It’s Not Always Easy Playing Hockey in Florida
For many University teams in Florida, long commutes are a common burden in order to reach the local ice rink. The University of Florida plays its home games in Jacksonville, which is at minimum an hour and 15-minute drive from campus. It takes a player who is truly dedicated to the sport to make that trip to practice multiple times a week and play games alongside their usual academic work.
However, some universities have been able to capitalize on the growth of hockey to help mitigate the distance issue. For many years, the University of South Florida played their homes games in Ellenton, Florida, which was a 45-minute drive from campus. Recently, the Florida Hospital Center Ice Complex (the same rink where the US Women’s Olympic team trained) opened its doors just 15 minutes from campus, giving the Bulls a world-class venue to train and play their home games.
Not only did this new venue raise player morale, it allowed USF a new opportunity to introduce students to their collegiate hockey team. As a member of the USF social media team said:
Once Florida Hospital Center Ice opened it became our home rink and we even have our own locker room. This move affected our crowds greatly, we can have a pretty decent showing for our Friday night games depending on the team we play and how much we promoted it.
Florida Is Part of the Future for Collegiate Hockey
As hockey continues to develop throughout Florida, university teams will grow along with it. While there are NHL players like Shane Gostisbehere who developed in the Florida Juniors systems, there have been graduates of Florida collegiate hockey who have broken into the ECHL, SPHL and even European leagues. We may be a ways off from a top NHL draft pick coming out of a Florida university, there could be more grads working their way into the AHL and eventually the NHL in the next decade.
As Christopher Krebs of the Florida Atlantic Owls Ice Hockey said:
It is easy to notice that more and more students are coming from Northern Climates to Florida schools. This factor along with the growth of Florida hockey is making Florida into a dominant fixture in the ACHA South Region.
COVID-19 Pandemic Changed Florida’s Hockey Plans
Heading into March 2020, collegiate ice hockey was thriving in Florida. FGCU was coming off another ACHA Division 2 championship in 2019, while USF had secured a No.1 seed at the 2020 ACHA national tournament, a first for the program. Along with USF, the University of Tampa also qualified for Nationals, meaning that the state was going to be well represented at the tournament, providing additional marketing for the clubs.
Then the COVID-19 Pandemic struck, causing life across the world to shift overnight along with almost every sporting event being canceled in the process. This left these teams with an unfinished season and a lot of questions, as they were stripped of a chance to compete for a championship.
The long-term ramifications of the Pandemic are still being felt, too. With uncertainty surrounding University life in 2020-21, many hockey teams in Florida were unable to get started in the Fall. Given how grass-roots these clubs are, the actual impact of this lost season won’t be known for years.
For now, though, there’s still hope for hockey in Florida. As life slowly returns to normal, hockey clubs are reorganizing and planning for the future, which includes many teams joining the Collegiate Hockey Federation (CHF) and hopefully restarting play for the 2020-21 season.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.