The Florida High School Hockey Association’s Lightning Conference kicked off the 2012-13 campaign this past Friday, September 21, with a handful of games on the schedule. East Lake began their quest to repeat as Lightning Cup Champions, as they downed River Ridge, 10-3, while Jesuit came out of the gate strong, thumping Steinbrenner, 8-1.
The FHSHA, in partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning, is an 18-team circuit that includes teams from the greater Tampa area. The Lightning Conference is one of two high school hockey leagues in the state of Florida affiliated with Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida and USA Hockey. The Florida Scholastic Hockey League runs the other league known as the Panthers Conference with teams from South Florida. Teams from both conferences compete throughout the regular season for a chance to meet in the state playoffs.
Teams in the Lightning Conference are divided into two divisions: the Central Division and the Western Division, where teams are classified as either pure (all players attending the same school) or combined (players from more than one school). Each team plays a total of 19 games spread across a season spanning September to February. The top eight teams in the Lightning Conference compete for the Lightning Cup while the top four teams in the conference compete for the state championship.
Tom Garavaglia, who acts as the community hockey coordinator for the Tampa Bay Lightning, believes the Lightning Conference has improved drastically every year both on and off the ice.
“The level of play is increasing year-by-year,” Garavaglia says. “Each season we expect a competitive conference and this season will be no different. Off the ice we had a handful of games aired on Bright House Sports Network and this season we hope to increase that total, so the league is in good shape right now.”
The parity in the Lightning Conference is as strong as ever, and Garavaglia notes that there are at least four to five teams who have a legitimate shot at winning the state championship.
“There are a lot of strong teams in this conference, and all of the games are usually high scoring,” Garavaglia added. “Mitchell High School won the State Championship last year so you can expect them to be strong again this year. Plant is a solid team and they will most certainly be in the mix, as well as East Lake who captured the Lightning Cup last season.”
Garavaglia’s role with the Lightning is to use the necessary tools and resources to develop youth hockey in the state of Florida. He takes pride in finding ways to give young people opportunities to play the game of hockey and also educate people who don’t know the game. Garavaglia is working on implementing a junior varsity development league that would be a feeder system to the Lightning Conference.
“I think this development league would be a tremendous benefit for the Lightning Conference and beyond,” states Garavaglia. “There needs to be a foundation in place where players can learn the systems, skills and fundamentals that are crucial to success at the next level. The exposure and popularity of the league has definitely increased and I think this would only add to the success of the conference.”
Garavaglia attributes much of the popularity and exposure of the conference to one main attraction in town.
“Having a professional hockey team in town such as the Lightning has helped immensely,” Garavaglia added. “Most of these kids grew up right around the time the Lightning came to Tampa so they know the team very well. Hockey is alive and well in Tampa.”
For information on the Lightning Conference high school hockey league, you can follow along at www.lightningconference.net
** Retraction/Correction: East Lake won the Lightning Cup last season, not Jesuit, as previously reported in this story.