CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Panthers IceDen was the place to be this past weekend.
As the host site for the 2021 Liberty Bell Games, the facility was overflowing with some of the top young hockey talent from around the Southeastern District, which includes states such as Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
"The Florida Panthers are dedicated to the growth of youth hockey in South Florida," Panthers IceDen General Manager Keith Fine said. "This showcase provides a fantastic opportunity for young players in the southeastern United States to compete against the best in their age group and develop their skills."
Sanctioned by USA Hockey, the Liberty Bell Games, which features players aged 14-18, has long held its flagship annual tournament in New Jersey. But with the help of the Panthers, a second tournament was added this year in order to give players in non-traditional markets an event in their very own backyard.
Spread out over five teams (Independence, Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin, William Penn, Constitution and Freedom), nearly 100 gifted participants laced up their skates and competed in the inaugural event for the Southeastern District, which was held over the course of two jam-packed days between June 18-19.
"I think it's great," Liberty Bell Games President & CEO Lew Mongelluzzo said. "The Southeastern District has had good players for quite a while. The idea was to bring them something of their own. Hockey is an expensive sport. It costs a lot of money to travel and play. We now have a local event, which kids from places like Carolina, Nashville, and Florida can enjoy while cutting down on costs."
Helping kick off things off, former NHL players and current Panthers employees Shawn Thornton and Peter Worrell teamed up to drop the ceremonial first puck before the opening game of the tournament.
"I think it's fun, first of all," Mongelluzzo said. "It's got to be fun. When it's not fun, you're not going to try. The kids have fun doing it, so therefore they just excel and it's even better for them."
Described by Mongelluzzo as an "exposure event for elite youth hockey talent," roughly 15 scouts from both junior and college programs throughout North America were in attendance at the Panthers IceDen over the weekend, with even more following along from afar thanks to the tournament's live broadcast.
Since its inception more than a decade ago, 29 alumni from the Liberty Bell Games have been drafted into the NHL, including Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary Flames), Kevin Labanc (San Jose Sharks), Shane Pinto (Ottawa Senators), Cayden Primeau (Montreal Canadiens) and Trevor Zegras (Anaheim Ducks).
Additionally, more than 200 alumni have been recruited by colleges.
"It's been established for quite a while, but this is our first year and our inaugural event in Florida," Mongelluzzo said. "We're trying to get it going down here. Everybody loves Florida."
For more information on the Liberty Bell Games, click HERE.