I guess you could call it the “rat-trick ripple effect.”
As the Florida Panthers prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their improbable run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, one local player, born and raised during the days of raining rats, is getting ready to make his own mark on the National Hockey League.
Andrew Peeke, a B-rated skater on NHL Central Scouting's September players to watch list for the 2016 NHL Draft, is in his first season with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman has notched 16 points in 34 games this season, catching the eye of professional scouts for his unique blend of size and skill.
What really separates Peeke from the majority of his peers, however, is his unique path to the draft and unusual upbringing in an area traditionally known more for its rampant humidity rather than its hockey players.
A self-described “die-hard Panthers fan" while growing up in Parkland, Fla., Peeke spent the majority of his childhood skating at Incredible Ice, now Panthers IceDen, and competing for the franchise’s youth hockey affiliate, the Junior Panthers.
“I was always a huge Panther fan,” said Peeke, whose family has had season tickets to the Panthers since their inaugural season in 1993. “I would go to about half the home games every year.”
It was during these games, Peeke says, that his future in hockey began to take shape.
“Whenever we went to a game, my dad would always say, ‘This could be you one day,’ or, ‘Watch this guy play. Maybe you can play like him one day,’” Peeke recalls. “It’s kind of weird to think that there’s now a possibility that what he said could come true.”
At the age of 14, Peeke left Florida to play for the Selects Hockey Academy in Connecticut. He was named the USPHL defensive player of the year in his final season before joining the Gamblers, who drafted him in the second round of the 2014 USHL Phase I Draft.
And although his transition to the USHL has been fairly seamless, the move has also made Peeke more appreciative of the perks of playing hockey in the Sunshine State.
“It’s probably 70 or 80 degrees in Florida right now, and I’m staring outside my window at a blizzard,” he said with a laugh.
In recent months, Peeke, who has committed to play for the University of Notre Dame, has even managed to garner the attention of his old hometown team with strong showings at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, the World Junior A Challenge, the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game and USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
“It’s great to see a Florida-born player like Andrew competing at such a high level,” Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko said. “It’s players like him, as well as several other talented young players from the area, that show just how beneficial having a hockey team has been to the local community. With the Panthers firmly entrenched in South Florida, we expect the area to continue producing top talent in the future.”
The 50th-ranked North American skater in NHL Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, Peeke could potentially be selected as early as the second or third round in the upcoming draft. And although he still has several months to wait before hearing his name called at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., Peeke is feeling closer than ever to achieving a lifelong dream that began in South Florida with the Panthers.
“I was really happy,” Peeke said of the rankings. “I set a benchmark for myself at 50, so when I saw that I was at ranked 50th overall I was really happy with myself. I mean, that is just a list, so you can’t focus on that too much. For me, it just means that I’m that much closer to being drafted.”
Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Gamblers.