CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - In what was likely the first major tournament of their young careers, hundreds of aspiring hockey players descended upon the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs this past weekend to compete for the 2017 USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U National Championships.
"For most of these kids, it's their first exposure to a national championship because this is the first level that we do nationals, " said Donna Kaufman, the lead director for USA Hockey. "To be able to compete at a national championship for the first time, I think this is a major experience for them. It's such a big event."
USA Hockey has been conducting national championships since 1938, with teams from 36 states being crowned champions in various classifications. As the proving grounds for many of USA Hockey's current top players, the annual championships can also claim numerous notable NHL and NWHL stars as alumni, such as Phil Kessel, Amanda Kessel, Hillary Knight, Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Joe Pavelski, just to name a few.
Still, USA Hockey isn't always just about the on-ice results.
"We just hope that these kids have fun," said Kaufman. "The winning or losing will eventually dissipate. I hope that in 20 years from now, these kids can come back and say that they did this when they were 14 and had a great experience with it. I hope that the friendships they have then will be the same friendships they have now. We want to make this event a lasting experience."
As the official practice facility of the Florida Panthers, Kaufman said that USA Hockey saw the Panthers IceDen was absolutely the perfect setting for this year's national championship. The state-of-the-art, 125,000-square-foot venue includes three sheets of ice, a newly unveiled Center of Excellence, and welcomes more than one million guests annually.
"This is a great destination," Kaufman said of the IceDen. "The families that are coming to this tournament are getting a great experience. USA Hockey is really trying to cultivate their NHL partnerships. To have the Panthers really be able to understand a little bit about what we do, from a USA Hockey standpoint, we can come in and showcase their top level and get to know their staff a little bit more. That relationship that we want to have going forward is really important to what we're trying to do."
With 40 teams spread out between three different divisions - 1A, 2A and 3A - all three sheets of ice were in heavy use throughout the weekend, as the talented young players got a chance to feel like professionals while competing under the watchful eyes of coaches and scouts.
"It's a tremendous honor for these kids to win their state tournament and be invited to a national championship," said Keith Fine, the general manager of the Panthers IceDen. "For these kids, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They get to represent their team, their state, and play for something greater than themselves. I think the kids really recognize that. It's a tremendous honor for us to be able to host something like this."
In many ways, the tournament is also a representation of the continued steady growth of youth hockey in Florida, which has seen its USA Hockey membership numbers rise from 8,114 in 2002-03 to 13,276 in 2015-16.
"We try to follow the American Development Model (ADM)," Fine said. "We're all about the growth and development of players. To have members of USA Hockey here to confirm that and make sure that we're doing it right it's big for us… They understand the growth of the game and where it's gong. We want to make sure that we align ourselves to that."
As for the Panthers' junior hockey affiliate, the Jr. Panthers, the tournament gave local kids a chance to welcome the hockey world to their home rink and play host to teams from some of hockey's largest markets, such as Minnesota and Michigan.
"I think the Jr. Panthers take it a little personal and want to defend their home turf," Fine said. "They want to represent the rink, the organization, the state of Florida and, of course, the Florida Panthers. I'm sure they definitely feel some pressure to do well, but at the end of the day it's just about going out there and doing your best."
In the end, a total of 24 national champions were crowned across the country at the 2017 USA Hockey Youth, Girls, High School, Women's and Sled National Championships. In Coral Springs, the Portland Junior Winterhawks (1A), Atlanta Fire (2A) and Falcons Hockey (3A) took home titles in their respective divisions.
"Hosting a tournament like this definitely shines a spotlight on South Florida," Fine said. "We have great conditions for ice. We have the environment for players to grow here and be successful. We have the facilities to do all of that. We've heard nothing but positive things."