CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Jessica King clutched her gray sweatshirt as she made her way around the Panthers IceDen on Wednesday afternoon. It was colder than she had anticipated, but the opportunity to be this close to real ice kept a warm smile on her face.
"I'm really excited to be here," she said, "and I'm really cold."
A native of Barbados, King was at the Panthers IceDen to visit with Shawn Thornton, who had befriended the 11-year-old during the organization's ice hockey clinic in the southern Caribbean in August. Impressed by her natural skating ability, Thornton invited King to visit the Panthers training facility for a special private lesson.
"She was a really great kid and one of the best skaters on the synthetic ice," said Thornton, 14-year NHL veteran who now serves as the Panthers VP of Business Operations. "We offered to bring her to the US for the first time and skate on real ice for the first time and get an actual hockey lesson."
In the days leading up to her trip, King said she had troubling sleeping. She was restless, her mind racing with thoughts about how the real ice would look and feel under her feet. Still, on her three-and-a-half hour flight, courtesy of JetBlue, from Barbados to Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, she luckily got "a little sleep."
"It's going to be really fun and a dream come true," she said enthusiastically.
As part of the lesson, Thornton and Panthers IceDen Hockey Director Max Ortolani knew they would have to take things slow with King as she made her transition from artificial to real ice. After she had adjusted to the surface, the duo went over the basics of hockey, with an emphasis on positioning and skating.
"The gliding will definitely be a little bit different and the stopping will definitely be the biggest challenge," Ortolani said. "That's mostly because with the synthetic, plastic gets shaved off and stops you a little bit more. On the ice you have to dig in and stop as quick as you can."
Luckily, King was up for the challenge.
"I expect to fall a lot and it to be really cold," she said.
Although she'd never even seen real ice before, King still managed to fall in love with the game of hockey. In a place where winter temperatures hover around the mid-80s and coconuts easily outnumber hockey pucks, the pint-sized Panther fan said she's able to watch some games on television, but finally seeing it "with my own eyes" has given her a new appreciation for the sport.
"I like everything about [hockey]," she said. "I really don't know how to explain it. It's really fun."
King's love for the game is the result of a continued push by the Panthers to grow the game of hockey throughout the Caribbean. In past years, the club has hosted ball hockey clinics in Barbados (2016), Dominican Republic (2015), Bahamas (2014) and Puerto Rico (2013, 2012).
"Anybody that's watching the game, is involved in the game, has any participation with the game, every little bit helps," Thornton said. "We want to grow our fan base worldwide, starting with the local area through Barbados, the Bahamas, you know name it. We want everyone cheering for the Cats."
In addition to her lesson, King also toured Florida's locker room and met with several other members of the Panthers, such as defenseman Alex Petrovic, who also worked at the clinic in Barbados over the summer. And as part of a special Barbados Takeover Night at the BB&T Center, she will finally watch her first NHL game in person when the Panthers host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
"We have great corporate partners in JetBlue and Barbados," Thornton said. "We thought, 'Why don't we ask if we can get her to the US? Let's bring her. Let's get her on the ice. She loves the game. She's extremely happy.' We asked if it'd be possible and she almost fell over she was so excited. A big thanks to everyone that helped make this happen."