Ice hockey has found its skates in Florida, with the state hosting 18 teams in six different counties. It’s a strong start for a sport that has never been officially recognized, and officially, still fails to receive recognition from the Florida High School Athletic Association.
No matter. Another august Florida hockey institution has stepped in to fill the void: the Tampa Bay Lightning. The reining NHL Eastern Conference champions officially kicked off the Lightning High School Hockey League in September, with teams from Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota all taking part. The teams compete in an annual season and playoff system with an eye on a championship. The Lightning have taken over operations from a group known as the Florida High School Hockey Association, which unanimously voted to cede controlling authority for high school hockey to the Lightning in a rare, mutually-agreed transfer of power.
As noted by the Tampa Tribune, a handful of former Lightning players have also stepped forward as coaches, with erstwhile Lightning forward Vinny Prospal leading Plant’s hockey team and Stanley Cup winning defenseman Jassen Cullimore at the helm for Jesuit.
According to Prospal, the move to have the Lightning take over the league’s operations has been entirely beneficial for the young athletes.
“Now it’s overseen by a huge organization that has had huge success lately in the community,” Prospal told the Tribune. “That helped tremendously in recognizing and getting people and players involved.
“For the Lightning, this is a start. More and more, they’ll put their feet in the hockey community and there will be more kids involved.”
That approach is apparently already bearing fruit. The league plans to include four junior varsity teams for the first time this year, with hopes to grow that lower level in the campaigns ahead.
Hear that, Florida? It’s the sound of skates on ice, and it’s only getting louder.