A weekly 18-team event helped the sport gain traction at the high school level.
As recently as four months ago, Peter Pearlman was convinced that most people in Florida did not know that local high school hockey existed. The Florida High School Athletic Association does not recognize the sport, and recreation and travel teams dominate ice time at privately operated rinks.
Then came Nov. 16, when the Florida Scholastic Hockey League hosted the inaugural High School Hockey Night event at Incredible Ice - a three-rink, 125,000-square-foot complex in Coral Springs. On 10 subsequent Mondays (or sometimes the occasional Tuesday), 18 prep teams from 15 public and private high schools in and around Broward County competed in nine games staggered over approximately four and a half hours. More than 1,000 people showed up that first night, including most of the schools' principals (who participated in ceremonial puck drops), school choirs (which sang the National Anthem), pep bands, cheerleaders and enough spectators to overflow Incredible Ice's expansive parking lot with cars.
"I had no clue what the night was going to be like," says Pearlman, president of the 12-year-old nonprofit FSHL. "I don't think any rink down here had ever seen anything like that. It was a great showcase for what we're trying to do, and I think it put high school ice hockey on the Florida map."
"In past years, we've had games spread out across Broward County," Ron Lieberman, hockey coach for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and chairman of High School Hockey Night, told Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "It gives the high school players some recognition for their sport and is a way for the community to become more involved. You can potentially see 18 different teams all in one night. I'm hoping it will also help promote the sport to the younger kids."
The National Hockey League took some heat for expanding to Florida and other warm-weather markets in the 1990s; the Tampa Bay Lightning entered the NHL in 1992 and the Florida Panthers, headquartered in Sunrise, joined the following year. While attendance for both of Florida's pro teams lags, youth and adult ice hockey programs and leagues are flourishing - just as they are in other nontraditional NHL cities.
Not so with prep hockey. "It's been a struggle," admits Pearlman, who founded the FSHL in 1998 with four teams. "Ice time has been very difficult to find, and it comes at a premium."
With a lack of community rinks, the 18 teams in the FSHL and another dozen or so independent high school hockey teams around the state rely on private, for-profit rinks like Incredible Ice, which opened in 1996 as one of the first rinks in Florida and counts the Panthers among its tenants. Prior to the June 2009 addition of that facility's third rink, FSHL teams played two games on the weekends wherever they could find available ice - regardless of whether they had practiced earlier in the week. "We were on the verge of becoming a game-only league, because there were absolutely no practice times available for us," Pearlman says, calling the FSHL's new relationship with Incredible Ice a "marriage made by opportunity," because that third rink opened up new programming opportunities for both the facility and the league. "They were looking to sell ice, and we were looking for a lot more ice."
"Now we're the home of high school hockey," says Leslie Barnett, rental coordinator at Incredible Ice. "Monday nights are one of our busiest nights of the week."
The 2009-10 High School Hockey Night season wrapped up on Feb. 22, but all those Monday nights provided an unprecedented opportunity for high school hockey to gain some traction in Florida - a necessity if the sport is to meet Pearlman's goal of being recognized by the FHSAA.
Recognition, however, may not come easy. A minimum of 32 member high schools geographically located in at least two of the state's four administrative sections must submit requests for recognition. No more than three-fourths of those schools can be located in the same administrative section, and each school making the request must have sponsored the sport for at least two years.
"There are not enough schools to qualify it as a recognized sport," says Seth Polansky, membership and media specialist for the association. "I personally don't see it happening, mainly because of economics. Every state in the nation has been hit hard by the economy, and we've had schools left and right dropping sports. So I don't see it as very likely in the near future - maybe in the far future."
Teams pay $12,000 to join the FSHL, which covers a season's worth of ice for all practices and games, plus officials, banquets, marketing and tournaments. One team from the league will represent Florida in USA Hockey America's High School Showcase in Pittsburgh next month. Schools opt to cover those costs or pass some or all of them on to the players.
Given the expense involved and the relatively few schools participating, Pearlman (whose son graduated from prep hockey years ago) realizes his league may be on thin ice for awhile. Some private schools have elevated hockey to varsity status, but it remains largely a club sport with both male and female players, many of whom also compete in travel leagues.
Nevertheless, Pearlman runs the FSHL like any other interscholastic league. Players are required to maintain a minimum grade-point average, and disciplinary measures are enacted when necessary. Plans also are under way to diversify by adding more schools and co-op programs from other parts of the state.
"If we're going to strive for recognition, we have to do things to earn the respect of schools and the state association," Pearlman says. "Plus, we've got to give the Mites, the Squirts and the Pee Wees something to play for. Once they get to the Midgets, a lot of these kids are going to stop playing hockey unless they can play for a varsity letter. It's very important that we bring these youngsters to the game and then keep them playing the game. I think it will happen; we just need a little more time."