The history of NHL hockey in Florida is a short and mostly inglorious one. Thirty-three NHL seasons, one Stanley Cup, one Stanley Cup Finals appearance and only eight playoff appearances have made for long summers for Panthers and Lightning fans. Throughout the last seventeen years, Canadian and Northern U.S. media-types, sore at losing the Jets, Nordiques, North Stars and Whalers, have consistently taken shots at the Southern U.S. fanbase and chirped about the lack of hockey culture in the Southeast on a regular basis. Even though Tampa was among the league leaders in attendance in 2003-2004 and again in 2005-2006, the narrative that hockey couldn't survive in Florida persists today.
But at least professional hockey in Florida has something to crow about - Tampa's Stanley Cup in 2004. The developmental programs in Florida have had little to hang their hats on as only three Florida-born players have ever made it to the NHL. Val James, born in Ocala in 1957, worked through the QMJHL before appearing in over 400 AHL games and eleven NHL games. Dallas Eakins, born in 1967 in Dade City, took the OHL route, bouncing between organizations and playing in over 600 AHL games and 120 NHL games. Eakins is the current coach of the Toronto Marlies, the AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And the most famous Floridian to play in the NHL is Dan Hinote, born in 1977 in Leesburg. Hinote also headed to the OHL before appearing in 500 NHL games and winning a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. That's the full list.
But it's about to change.
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The California invasion is beginning to get headlines, especially since Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem were selected in the first round of the NHL draft in June. Talk of the coming flood of California players filters out from everywhere, even Paul Kelly of College Hockey, Inc. Getting fewer headlines, but picking up just as much steam is the Florida hockey surge. The first player over the dam is going to be Blake Geoffrion, great-grandson of Howie Morenz, grandson of Boom Boom Geoffrion, and he's dragging half of the Canadiens' history with him. Geoffrion, born in Plantation in 1988 is the reigning Hobey Baker Award Winner as the top player in in the NCAA was signed by the Predators and is currently playing for the Milwaukee Admirals in the AHL. Andrew Yogan could be the next. Yogan, born in Boca Raton in 1991 was drafted by the New York Rangers in the 4th round in June and has returned to the OHL to play for the Erie Otters.
In all, there are twenty-two Florida-born kids playing in the NCAA or a high-level Junior Hockey program in Canada or the U.S.:
|Brad Cooper||University of Connecticut||NCAA||Boca Raton|
|Scott Halpern||Rensselaer PolyTech||NCAA||Boca Raton|
|Andrew Yogan||Erie Otters||OHL||Boca Raton|
|Kevin Murdock||Lincoln Stars||USHL||Bradenton|
|Jide Idowu||Indiana Ice||USHL||Cooper City|
|R.J. Boyd||Sacred Heart||NCAA||Fort Myers|
|Mario Puskarich||Tri-City Storm||USHL||Fort Walton Beach|
|Brian Ferlin||Indiana Ice||USHL||Jacksonville|
|Kevin Goumas||New Hampsire||NCAA||Lake Worth|
|David Boehm||Bemidji State||NCAA||Naples|
|Myles Harvey||Providence College||NCAA||Orlando|
|Ryan Carpenter||Sioux City Musketeers||USHL||Oviedo|
|Mark Armstrong||St. Lawrence University||NCAA||Palm Harbor|
|Ian Slater||Western Michigan||NCAA||Satellite Beach|
|Cody Bradley||Indiana Ice||USHL||Tampa|
|Matt Wahl||Omaha Lancers||USHL||Wellington|
|Guy Leboeuf||Rensselaer PolyTech||NCAA||West Palm Beach|
|Brandon Maxwell||Kitchener||OHL||Winter Park|
One name from the list to look for in the upcoming draft is Colin Suellentrop, a 6'2" 192 lbs defenseman playing for the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. The Scouting Report tagged Suellentrop as a draft sleeper should he take a step forward this season.
Only sixty Floridians in total have made into high-level Junior Hockey programs or NCAA Division I programs and beyond. Twenty-three of them are active right now. The arrival of these players is no accident. Florida Youth Hockey has been growing for the last fifteen years, helped along by the Florida Everblades, Palm Beach Breakers, Palm Beach Black Hawks, Miami Toros, Florida Eels, Panther's Alliance, Glacier Sharp Shooters, Golden Wolves, Jacksonville Jr. Barracudas, Thunder Hockey, Volusia Jr Bulls, and the Spacecoast Hurricanes. You can find more information on these programs at the Florida Amateur Hockey League website. The Florida Panthers are doing their part as well. The team sponsors the Florida JR. Panthers, an organziation comprised of thirteen teams from minor mite through AAA, sponsored and partnered fully with the Panthers.
Though the state of Florida has no Division I hockey teams, there are a number of Universities active in the ACHA. The University of South Florida, The University of Central Florida, The University of Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida Tech, Florida State, and Florida Atlantic are all active within one of the ACHA's three divisions. The athletes receive no scholarships or stipends for their play and these teams receive little or no funding from their respective Universities forcing them to raise their entire operational budget, often in excess of $40,000, on their own, a testament to the love of the game in South Florida.
The rise of hockey in Florida isn't as well-publicized as similar movements in California and Texas, and it may be a few years behind, but the programs are there and the players are coming. The notion that Florida is bereft of hockey culture is ignorant - the culture is vibrant and growing and the results are starting to show.