CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Former Florida Panthers captain Olli Jokinen spent seven seasons starring on the ice in South Florida, finishing his career as the franchise's all-time scoring leader with 419 points in 567 games.
His greatest contributions to the organization, however, could come in retirement.
On Tuesday, the Panthers IceDen announced an exciting new partnership with Jokinen's South Florida Hockey Academy that will allow the former NHL center's premier youth hockey organization to carve out a new home within the 125,000 square foot, state-of-the-art facility.
"We want to make this rink a powerhouse," said Jokinen, who officially retired from professional hockey in March. "Not just in Florida, but a powerhouse in the whole world, not just the United States. With the facility, what we have over here, it's going to help us to recruit the players from all over the world, especially the North American players."
The SFHA offers three different full season teams for local, out-of-state and international student athletes: 2005 AAA, 2006 AAA and Midget/U16 AAA. In September 2018, the Academy will also add a U-18 AAA level program that is available for players born 2000 and 2001.
As of right now, Jokinen said the SFHA's U16 team is compromised of roughly 65 percent European-born skaters. In the future, however, he hopes 75 percent of the academy's participants will come from North America, citing an emphasis on nurturing homegrown talent in South Florida through early-age programs such as the Panthers' "Learn to Play" initiative.
"We want them coming throughout the system," Jokinen said.
The Panthers IceDen's current youth hockey programs include the Florida JR Panthers Travel Youth Hockey (U8-U18 AA), Vanguard Youth Hockey League (ages 7-17) and Panthers Adult Hockey League. With the SFHA's arrival, these programs will not only continue, but also improve, as players and coaches will have the opportunity to work in close proximity to Jokinen's academy.
"The decision to partner with them is quite simple," Panthers IceDen general manager Keith Fine said. "Having alumni to give back to the community, give back to the kids was really important. By having [the SFHA], it really allows these kids to have someone to look up to, and also for our coaches to see what true professionals look like on the ice. So, really, it's kind of two-fold."
In addition to Jokinen, the executive board of SFHA also includes Panthers alumni Radek Dvorak and Tomas Vokoun, who serve as coaches, while Ed Jovanovski works as the academy's head defense coach.
"We're very excited that these guys are back in the building," Panthers vice president of business operations Shawn Thornton said. "We want to be more involved with the alumni. We know there's been fractional ownership and a lot of things over the previous years before Vinnie [Viola] and Doug [Cifu] took over. Talking to them, they're very excited to have these guys back, being part of the family."
With this new partnership, the SFHA and the Panthers both expect to see youth hockey continue its upward trajectory in Florida, which has seen its USA Hockey membership numbers rise from 8,114 in 2002-03 to 13,276 in 2015-16.
"There's more kids involved in hockey," said Dvorak, who spent nine seasons with the Panthers. "That's something you want to see. There's more rinks around. I coached the last three, four years, from the smallest kids all the way to U15. Going through every rink, playing these games and everything, there's a lot of kids right now. It's something that's nice to see."
In the past, the Panthers IceDen has been able to produce a few notable NHL players like Philadelphia's Shayne Gostisbehere and Arizona's Jakob Chychrun. Within the next five to six years, however, Jokinen believes the facility will have the potential to start turning out NHL-caliber talent on a regular basis.
"There's some Florida-product players that grew up in this building that play in the National Hockey League," Jokinen said. "That's the direction that we want to head, that you're not just producing players here once in a while, but year after year."