Forget the beaches — it’s youth hockey that’s all the rage in Southwest Florida, and quickly becoming the talk of the country.
It’s another beautiful January Saturday in Southwest Florida. The sun is shining. The skies are clear blue. It’s maybe 75 degrees. Yet while most visitors would be heading for the beaches, more than a hundred families — some from as far away as Chicago and Dallas — are instead huddled inside the chilly “blue” and “green” rinks of Germain Arena in Estero, sitting on cold concrete bleachers, cheering on their kids as they participate in the first of a three-day youth hockey tournament.
But the fact is, youth hockey in Southwest Florida is white hot — so hot that one team was ranked number one in the U.S. for more than two years, three teams are currently ranked in the top 20and hockey moms, dads and organizers around the country have taken notice.
While there are rec leagues and just-for-fun programs for kids, the youth hockey we’re talking about takes the sport — and the teaching of it — seriously. These programs include Florida Junior Everblades AA hockey and Florida Alliance AAA hockey.
Founded in 1998, the Junior Everblades is (this season) comprised of 10 teams and approximately 150 players, ranging in age from five to 16 years old, and teams compete with others throughout Florida. The Florida Alliance, formed in 2012, fields the top players from around the state (via tryouts) and travels to major tournaments across America and even to Canada.
Originally from Toronto, Jim Brown is a former Florida Everblade who’s in his first year as hockey director for the Junior Everblades. “I would never have imagined my son learning to play hockey in Florida,” he laughs. “However, we’ve had so many ex-pro hockey players move here and get involved here that our coaching is outstanding, our kids are learning and the success of our teams is getting recognition around the country.”
Certainly the most prominent name among these former professionals is Brian Rafalski, who moved his family to Southwest Florida in 2011 following his retirement from the Detroit Red Wings. With a resume that includes three Stanley Cup titles, three Olympic appearances for the United States and two NHL All Star nominations, Rafalski has been instrumental in growing Southwest Florida hockey the last few years — by coaching, collaborating with other coaches and helping establish the Florida Alliance.
“Travel hockey’s purpose is to develop the elite players and give them opportunities to compete against the best players across the U.S. and in Canada,” he explains. “We want to bring out their best individually, while teaching them to work within the team concept. Those are skills that are very important in any profession and in life. And hopefully, we can put them in a position to earn a college scholarship.”
Although only four years old, Florida Alliance AAA already features nine teams of boys (and occasionally girls) ages nine to 14 — but it’s the two teams of 11-year-olds who shine brightest in the spotlight. The “Elite” squad was ranked number one in the country for over two years (at this writing, ranked number three) and the second “AAA” squad is ranked among the top 20.
“It’s pretty unique to have two teams ranked as highly as we have,” says Ryan Brindley, another former Everblade and key contributor to the formation of the Alliance. “Honestly, I don’t know if it’s ever been done.”
Brindley is president of Southeast Elite Hockey — focusing on camps, clinics, teaching and tourneys — and has been coaching youth hockey since his undergraduate years at Miami University of Ohio. With the Florida Alliance, the goal is “to have kids become the best people they can be, on and off the ice. If they have the passion and the work ethic, we’ll push them in skill development as well as life lessons.”
In fact, Southwest Florida hockey is now so well respected that parents from all over the state are bringing their boys and girls here. Michael Cunningham is one such parent who literally goes to this extreme, traveling from his home in the Keys to Germain Arena for his daughter Ainsley (former Junior Everblade) and son Eagan (current Alliance). “I’m fortunate to have a job where I’m able to do my work anywhere,” he notes. “One of the reasons we like being involved with the Junior Everblades and the Alliance is I know we get great coaching — minor league hockey, professional hockey, Olympic hockey. The experience and knowledge coaches are communicating to my daughter and son are invaluable. It’s teaching them life lessons and developing their skills.”
As Cunningham and other parents can attest, tournament hockey like Florida Alliance ain’t cheap — anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per year when you add it all up. About a year ago, Rafalski, Brindley and others began discussing ways to make the Alliance better for kids, and more affordable for parents. The result is a new, not-for-profit Florida Alliance, complete with 501(c)3 papers from the IRS, that will debut in August as a year-round program.
While a number of fundraising events are planned, Rafalski is hoping that Southwest Florida businesses will see the value of their efforts — and the national recognition it’s bringing — and support their mission with sponsorships.
“Our goal is to create a year-round program where kids can train together, work on skill sets they may not be able to otherwise and, with travel, have a chance to go up against the top players in the country,” he says. “Any improvement within the hockey frame will always help kids in life.”
Ryan Brindley agrees. “In the end, we’re just trying to do what’s best for the kids. And now that we’re getting recognized nationally, well, that’s pretty satisfying.”
Story by John Sprecher | Photos by Milissa Sprecher & Felicity Rafalski of Milissa Sprecher Photography