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Junior hockey finds home in Florida
The Southeast Junior Hockey League, which just finished its first season, lets players 17-20 avoid going north for competition.
By STEVE LEE
Published April 27, 2005
OLDSMAR - Midway through its second decade, hockey in the Sunshine State has evolved beyond a cultural phenomenon. The sport is here to stay - and grow.
This despite the Tampa Bay Lightning not defending the Stanley Cup because of the NHL lockout, the first time a professional sports league in North America lost an entire season to a labor dispute.
"I don't think anyone involved in (youth and adult hockey programs thinks) about not being involved just because the NHL is not playing. It has no bearing," said David Cole, the Lightning's director of fan development.
Youth and adult teams began springing up faster than a Fredrik Modin slap shot with the 1990 inception of the Lightning. High school and college teams, albeit at the club level, soon followed suit.
Until recently, however, there has been a gap between the top midget (ages 15-16) and college programs. That's where the fledgling Southeast Junior Hockey League, the state's first program for elite players ages 17-20, comes in.
"It's a growth period, and the time is now," Cole said.
For Kent Ramsey, a 17-year-old forward for the SJHL champion Oldsmar Sand Sharks, the timing could not have been better. Had the league not formed, the senior at Bayshore High in Bradenton said he would have been stuck playing in adult leagues with older, slower skaters.
And that would have been tough to swallow for a premier player who said his "teething ring was a hockey puck."
Much like the other levels of hockey in Florida, the SJHL appears to have found its niche. Organizers of the four-team league (Oldsmar, Ellenton Eels, Space Coast Hurricanes and Palm Beach Ice Hawks) plan to add two expansion teams for next season.
"We had a great first season, and next year's going to be even better," said league president Ben Atkins, citing Daytona, Fort Myers and Lakeland as the top candidates.
Players welcome the chance to take on more teams with different faces.
"It would definitely be nice to see (expansion) happen," Oldsmar wing Steve Platthy said.
Oldsmar coach Dave Beaudin, a 40-year-old former Ohio State wing who helped Atkins found the league, had junior hockey in mind when he became hockey director at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy, the Sand Sharks' home rink, in 1992.
But, he said, time was needed to develop a solid foundation of younger players to draw from.
"The only thing missing was junior hockey," said Beaudin, whose father, Norm, played alongside Bobby Hull for the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets. "We were competing on every level (in Florida) except for that 17-20 junior rank.
"Our top players were being hand-picked to battle on third lines at (northern) prep schools. We're trying to keep kids in Florida and make our program stronger."
Come on down
How's this for role reversal?
In the past, some of the state's best players who were too old for midget leagues and not old enough for college departed for northern prep schools.
Oldsmar's Mike Bazzone went to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, and New Port Richey's Dan Vranek wound up at Eden Prairie in Minnesota.
"They never had a high level to go to, so they would leave," Ellenton coach Phil Blackwell said. "We're trying to keep them from leaving Florida." Some players have even trekked south in search of more ice time than they were getting in their junior leagues. Seven New Englanders joined the Eels in January and keyed a run to the SJHL final and 16-6 record.
"The New England kids helped Ellenton climb in the standings," Atkins said.
And two of those players, Rhode Island's Jon Nelson (30 goals, 59 points) and Justin Curran (18, 33), were first and second in team scoring.
"I went up there where a couple of kids were on the verge of getting cut," Blackwell said. "I said to them, "Why don't you come down and play in Florida,' just to get them some ice time.' "
"It's weird. You think Florida, warm weather. But you don't think of an ice rink," said Eels goaltender Chris Handley, a junior from Connecticut who attends the Stephen Hausman prep school at Ellenton's J.P. Igloo.
"I'm very glad I came down here."
The influx of new talent provided the Eels with depth and had a ripple effect on the others.
"Once the kids from Florida saw the kids I brought down, they elevated their level of play," Blackwell said. "They knew they had to step up."
One of those Floridians, Lake Worth's Nick Isoldi, stepped up enough to finish third in team scoring with 20 goals and 30 points.
Among the highly skilled players opting to remain in Florida is Oldsmar's Eric Pretto, who has skated in the prestigious Chicago Showcase, a national tournament for the top high school players, and played for a 17-and-under U.S. national team in the Czech Republic and Finland.
"It's not the highest level of junior hockey that you're going to get, but it's Florida," said Pretto, a 2002 Pinellas Park graduate. "It was good for the first year. Every team's got a good three or four players, but every team's not good from top to bottom."
Platthy, a 2002 Indian Rocks Christian graduate, said the league is "actually a lot more competitive than I thought it would be."
Added Ramsey, who has played for a handful of elite teams including a Southeastern U.S. squad that won a peewee (ages 10-12) championship in Quebec: "There's a lot of young players coming into (the SJHL) that could be really good.
"They just need playing time."
Despite Ellenton's midseason improvement, the Sand Sharks were the dominant team in the SJHL's inaugural season. Oldsmar capped a 15-5-2 season by beating Ellenton 9-4 in the championship game.
That earned the Sharks a berth in last week's junior national tournament in Philadelphia. Oldsmar placed third against Junior A and B teams.
After the tournament, , Atkins said scouts met with several Sharks to discuss playing in a better league. The SJHL is a Junior C team while most leagues in New England are Junior A.
"In the Junior A level, the third and fourth lines are like our first line," Atkins, 35, said.
But among the SJHL teams, "the Sharks are kind of the kings of the league," said Cole, who also is a referee in the league.
"Each team, just like in the professional end, chose a course of action," Atkins said.
The Sharks, he added, "went with the down and dirty kids who could get it done."
As for the other teams, Atkins said third-place Palm Beach's roster had several "affluent kids," some of whom missed gamesto take European vacations.
Space Coast went with youth, opting for several 16-year-olds (who turn 17 this year).
"They want to build a long-lasting team," Atkins said.
While some SJHL players aspire to become professionals, most relish the chance to continue playing at a high level.
"You've got to remember what it's there for initially," Cole said. "It's there to keep kids playing. If someone thinks they're there to get to the National Hockey League, they're delusional. That's not what it's there for."
Maybe not, but Beaudin said playing in Florida could lead to moving up through the ranks, and eventually, a Junior A program. Some might even wind up on college teams.
"The only way our sport could move ahead and compete with programs up North is if we started (the SJHL)," Beaudin said.
"If you're going to have the infrastructure for hockey, you need junior hockey."