High school hockey, not yet an FHSAA sport, grows in South Florida
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
by Matt Porter
Believe it or not, high school hockey is thriving in South Florida.
There's a well-established league in Broward County. A pocket of teams in Palm Beach County and Southwest Florida. A state championship has been awarded for four years.
While the Florida High School Athletic Association doesn't recognize hockey as a high school sport - and perhaps never will - a few puck-obsessed hopefuls play on.
Around 60 of them play in the Palm Beach Scholastic Hockey League, a four-team in-house program in its second year at the Palm Beach Skate Zone in Lake Worth. They are sons of Northern transplants and Florida-born Panthers fans, converted roller hockey players and well-trained travel players blowing off steam.
"There's always laughs," said Mike Hager, a burly forward on a Wellington team which lost 8-4 to a combination Dwyer-Jupiter squad on a recent night. "A lot of kids out there didn't touch the ice until this year, a lot of football players, baseball players. Everyone loves it."
The PBSHL, which also has teams representing Park Vista and Palm Beach Central, is cousin to the larger Florida Scholastic Hockey League. The FHSL plays at the Saveology.com IcePlex in Coral Springs, the Panthers' practice home. It was established in 1998, not coincidentally, two years after the Panthers reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Since beginning with four teams - Spanish River and Pope John Paul II among them - the FHSL has fielded 18-24 programs yearly. It had 18 last year, including Spanish River, Boca Raton and a combination West Boca-Taravella team. North Broward Prep, coached by former Panthers tough guy Peter Worrell, has been league and state champion the past three seasons.
The FHSL has eligibility and residency requirements and is a member of State Amateur Hockey of Florida, the state's official governing body. It hosts a weekly Hockey Night in South Florida event at the IcePlex and has sent a team to the USA Hockey high school national tournament for the last four years. The IcePlex, the only three-rink facility south of Washington, D.C., will host nationals in March 2013, the first time a scholastic hockey tournament has been held in Florida.
"We want kids playing for their school," FHSL founder and President Peter Pearlman said. "Some of them recognize hockey. Some don't give it the type of recognition we want."
Hockey is an official high school sport in 18 states, all of which have regular ice in winter except for California and Kentucky. The first step to FHSAA recognition is sponsorship by 32 schools in different areas of the state. Right now, only a handful of schools statewide sponsor teams, none in Palm Beach County.
"I love ice hockey," Dwyer Athletic Director Tom Pagley said, "but I don't know if we have the room and the money to start up any new sports."
FHSAA Assistant Executive Director for Athletic Services Justin Harrison said he received just one email about hockey in his four years on the job.
For example, Dwyer lacrosse started as an off-campus club that included players from Benjamin, Dwyer and Jupiter. It was self-funded for five seasons before the FHSAA recognized lacrosse in 2008. By then, it had 60-plus players in the program. Several other area schools had similar turnout.
High costs of equipment and scarcity of ice time keep numbers down. There are three rinks in Broward and two in Palm Beach County (the new IceWorks, near Palm Beach International Airport, is the other). North of that, the nearest rink is two hours away in Rockledge.
Some in Jupiter drive 40 miles for an hour-long game. For $225, players in the PBSHL get a 10-game season, a four-team playoff, a season-ending barbecue and three pre-season practices.
"It's a slow build," Wellington coach Lou Colontuoni said.
But progress is being made. After all, Pearlman started his league by asking his son's school, Pine Crest, for permission to mail flyers to students. The Skate Zone was constructed by six families whose kids were sick of playing roller hockey on basketball courts.
Soon, they were flooded with calls about ice hockey, so they flooded one of the rinks.
Today, there are two ice sheets.