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Olli Jokinen aims to grow hockey in South Florida

Longtime NHL player teams with Tomas Vokoun, Radek Dvorak, Petr Sykora to open academy

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

Olli Jokinen led a nomadic existence during his 18 NHL seasons, moving from city to city while playing for 10 teams. But after his seven seasons with the Florida Panthers, the Kuopio, Finland, native kept coming back to South Florida because it was "always the best place to live."

Now residing in Coral Springs with his wife, Katerina, and their three daughters, Jokinen is firmly entrenched in the area after finishing his playing career in 2014-15 with the St. Louis Blues. Although the 38-year-old hasn't officially retired -- "That's something that's going to happen very soon," he said -- he's already begun his next career with the help of three other former NHL players who also have settled in South Florida.

Together with two-time Stanley Cup winner Petr Sykora and former Panthers Tomas Vokoun and Radek Dvorak, Jokinen founded the South Florida Hockey Academy, which opened in February at the Panthers' former practice facility, Glacier Ice and Snow Arena, in Pompano Beach.

The academy also runs a pro summer camp, complete with NHL-quality training and equipment staffs, to help NHL, college, minor league and junior players with their offseason training, but its main goal is to develop youth hockey players in the area.

"I see this as my chance to give back to the game and grow the game," said Jokinen, who scored 321 goals and had 750 points in 1,231 NHL games. "Before, families had to send their children away to Minnesota or New England or Canada to continue their development after they were 14 or 15 years old. We want them to be able to stay here. Hopefully, someday we can have some kids that make it to the big leagues."

The academy started small this fall with an AAA team of 9- and 10-year-old players coached by Sykora, 40, and Dvorak, 39, that includes Sykora's 9-year-old son, Nicholas. Next fall, it will add a 12-and-under AAA team that Dvorak will coach and a 16-and-under AAA team that Jokinen and Vokoun will coach.

Beginning in 2018-19, the academy intends to have five teams combined in the 18-and-under and 14-and-under age groups also joining the academy. To strengthen the talent pool, it will recruit some players from Europe.

"There's a lot going on right now," Sykora said. "We are in the stage where we are building this up and we're going to take it easy year by year because we want to do it right."

Though still in its infancy, Jokinen said the academy is an idea he'd been discussing for three years with his friend, Mikko Saarni, a former youth and junior hockey player and coach from Finland who serves as general manager of the academy. Saarni previously worked as CEO of Universal Players, which specialized in placing European athletes in boarding schools, Junior A programs and colleges in North America.

During their time with the Panthers, Jokinen, Vokoun and Dvorak always thought South Florida was an under-tapped market for youth hockey, noticing how expansion helped turn California into a hotbed for youth hockey.

Vokoun, 40, saw similar results during his eight seasons with the Nashville Predators, beginning with their inaugural season in 1998-99.

"I started with the expansion franchise, and when I came back last year, they had done an amazing job with their youth hockey program over there and rinks," said Vokoun, who went 300-288-43 with 35 ties and had a 2.55 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 700 NHL games. "When I [started], there were 300-plus registered youth hockey players. Now they have like 3,700 in Nashville. So there's no reason why in Florida it shouldn't be the same. There's two NHL teams in the state.

"Obviously, you compete always with the weather and some of the less expensive sports. … But the Panthers are improving. They have an exciting young team and they've done some great scouting, and for years to come, they're going to have some great players, like the [Tampa Bay] Lightning."

A handful of players from Florida have made it to the NHL. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun, who was born in Boca Raton and got his start in the Junior Panther program, became the highest-selected player born in Florida when he was picked No. 16 by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Chychrun is one of six Florida-born players to score an NHL goal, along with Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (Pembroke Pines), Calgary Flames forward Garnet Hathaway (Naples), Vancouver Canucks forward Jayson Megna (Fort Lauderdale), Dan Hinote (Leesburg), who played for the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues, and Blake Geoffrion (Plantation), who played for the Predators and Montreal Canadiens.

Also taken in the 2016 draft were defenseman Andrew Peeke, a Parkland native who was picked in the second round (No. 34) by the Columbus Blue Jackets, right wing Brandon Duhaime from Coral Springs, who was chosen by the Minnesota Wild in the fourth round (No. 106), defenseman Chase Priskie of Pembroke Pines, who was selected in the sixth round (No. 177) by the Washington Capitals, and left wing Nick Pastujov of Bradenton, who was picked in the seventh round (No. 193) by the New York Islanders.

But those players had to leave Florida when they got older to continue their schooling and hockey development. For example, Chychrun attended school in Boca Raton through ninth grade but traveled to Detroit on weekends in eighth and ninth grades to play for the Little Caesars youth hockey program there and later joined the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

"We are trying to create somewhere for the Florida kids where they don't have to move from home," Sykora said. "They can be with the family, but they will get the highest possible training and school and all that stuff together."


Although Nicholas is 9, Sykora already had started to think his son would have to move north to continue his hockey development and education. Sykora, his wife and daughter would have moved with him.

After becoming involved with the South Florida Hockey Academy, Sykora no longer is thinking about leaving the area.

"As a parent, forget being an ex-NHL player or now a youth coach, I just didn't feel before we started (the academy) that it would be the best place for my son to grow up as a hockey player," said Sykora, who played 1,017 NHL games and won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-2000 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09. "But with what we created, now I'm very comfortable that this is the best thing for my son."

Creating an environment where youth players can develop their skills will be essential to the academy's success, but Jokinen, Sykora, Vokoun and Dvorak also emphasize the importance of education. The academy has a working relationship with St. Andrew's School, a prestigious boarding school in Boca Raton about a 15-minute drive from Glacier Ice and Snow Arena

Players living locally can remain at their current school or attend St. Andrew's along with those joining the academy from out of state.

"We want to get these kids better," said Dvorak, who scored 227 goals and had 590 points in 1,260 NHL games. "We want to give them a chance to move on and go to college and go play hockey plus study. For us, school is the No. 1 thing. That's our priority. So we want to combine these two things and we are doing it. We want to give them the best chance to go and play a high-level game."

Players enrolled in the academy attend school during the day, and then head to the rink for on- and off-ice work in the afternoon. On weekends, they travel to tournaments.

But Jokinen stressed, "Academics come first. If your grades aren't at a certain level, you don't skate."


Among the NHL players who used the academy's pro summer camp to prepare for this season were Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty and defenseman Andrei Markov, as well as defensemen Dmitry Kulikov (Buffalo Sabres), Jacob Trouba (Winnipeg Jets), Erik Gudbranson (Vancouver Canucks), Steven Kampfer (New York Rangers) and Keith Yandle (Panthers). With the help of a staff that includes medical trainer Jim Pizzutelli, who worked for the Panthers and Sabres, strength and conditioning coach Manny Mair, and Panthers locker room attendant Oscar Munguia, players get an NHL-style setting to do their offseason training.

"They have their lockers here, so they can leave their equipment here," Jokinen said. "They can work out off the ice and work with our trainers, and they can skate here."

Being involved with the pro camp and the youth players has helped Jokinen, Vokoun, Dvorak and Sykora stay involved in the game and provides what Vokoun called "that kind of locker room feeling" many players miss after they retire.

"Once you're done playing hockey, you kind of look for something to do," Dvorak said. "We all played for a long time and we all retired, and it's something that we can give something back to the kids. We were kids as well, and growing up we were always looking up to older players, and we all know how important it is to work with the kids. It's been great. Hockey is our life."

In a way, the academy has become their life as well. As investors, Jokinen, Vokoun, Dvorak and Sykora are not receiving any salary.

"The only way we're going to make any money off of it is if we sell the academy, which I don't see us doing for a long time," Jokinen said.

Although they're just getting started in South Florida, they've seen progress being made in other parts of the state, particularly in the Tampa area with youth programs such as Southeast Elite Hockey, which has former NHL players Chris Dingman, Brian Rafalski, Sami Salo and Mathieu Garon on its coaching staff, and is affiliated with the Florida Alliance AAA team and Florida Everblades AAA and junior teams.

Dingman and fellow Lightning alumni Jassen Cullimore, Filip Kuba and Vinny Prospal also are involved with the Tampa Bay Scorpions, whose under-14 and under-16 teams won Tier II USA Hockey Championships in 2015.

"On our side (of the state), there's the four of us and there's (former NHL player) Marco Sturm, who's helping too now," Vokoun said. "There's a lot more ex-NHL players who are retiring in Florida. I think it's going to take some time for us to catch up. Obviously, we're not in the New England area or Michigan or Minnesota, where every neighborhood has a rink. That's a little problem, but other than that, there's people with the knowledge and there's a lot of kids.

"It's just starting the right way with them right from a young age. Obviously, it's not going to turn around overnight. It's going to be a process, but I think it's moving in the right direction."

Jokinen has spoken to the Panthers about establishing a business relationship, but there isn't an official connection so far. He believes that working with the Panthers to grow the game in South Florida would be mutually beneficial.

He's seen it in other NHL markets where he played.

"When the kids play hockey, their parents go to the games," Jokinen said.

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