Professional ice hockey has been around for a century, but it’s only 25 years old in Tampa Bay. Yet a hockey culture is being built one generation at a time at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, the official practice facility of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Back in the day, when the rink first opened (20 years ago), it was very exciting,” said Chris May, director of community partnerships at the Ice Sports Forum. “I remember them driving the Zamboni through downtown with the partnership when we signed the contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
The forum is more than a professional practice facility. The rink is place where kids of all ages, who grew up watching the Lightning, learn to play the sport.
“We’re from Minnesota originally,” said Brenda Ficken, a Lightning season ticket holder. “So, my husband grew up playing hockey.”
Now, her grandson Logan plays hockey on an Ice Forum team and idolizes Lightning goalie Andre Vasilevskiy.
“He’s got his goalie net, his equipment,” Ficken said. “As they’re playing on the TV, he’s playing in the living room watching them.”
She said, when her 6-year-old grandson first got his goalie pads, glove and mask – they weighed more than he did. He now outweighs the equipment by one pound.
They were among the dozens of families at the recent Lightning Made holiday hockey camp at the Ice Sports Forum run by Tom Garavaglia, manager of the Lightning’s community hockey programs.
“We have kids that have just strapped on skates for the first time and we have kids that have been playing hockey for a number of years and are very experienced,” Garavaglia said. “Our philosophy is number one let’s create a really fun environment and fun experience for the kids. Cause obviously, hockey is a game first and foremost.”
He said other NHL teams are taking note of the Lightning’s community programs that include children as young as 4 to adults who skate in leagues and attend fantasy camps.
“We’ve got great programs with the Lightning to reach out to the schools teaching them how to play ball hockey and it transitioned onto the ice,” said Jassen Cullimore, former Lightning defenseman, Stanley Cup champion and now hockey director for the Lightning community programs.
Thanks to the Lightning paving the way, ice hockey is now a common childhood experience growing up in Florida. Just ask Naples born Aaron Humphrey, one of the Lightning camp instructors and assistant coach with the University of South Florida Ice Bulls.
“My brother started playing hockey two years before me and we grew up about 15 minutes from Germain Arena,” Humphrey said. “I loved watching it and said, ‘Mom come on, you’ve got to get me skates, I want to play.’ Next day, I got skates and I was in the next program.”
Humphrey is proof that there are now Florida grown players with “ice hockey” in their veins, just like northerners.
The area will celebrate the NHL's 100th anniversary by hosting the 2018 NHL All Star Game and three days of events. The Sunday game and Saturday skills events are sold out. However, there's a free concnert at Curtis Hixon Park Friday and several, free hockey activities throughout the weekend. Details are available at the NHL All Star website.