With the help of the Florida Panthers, the Florida Scholastic Hockey League (FSHL) will begin their quest for a championship today at the 2017 America's Showcase at the Robert Morris Island Sports Center in Pittsburgh, PA.
A five-day tournament featuring over 50 competitive hockey games, the goal of America's Showcase, which will be held from held April 20 to 24, is to provide the nation's premier high school hockey players with increased exposure to junior, college and professional scouts from throughout the USA and Canada.
"We have kids of exceptional skill playing in Florida that really don't get seen a lot, even if they have a travel program," said John Gullman, a member of the FSHL's executive board. "This is our second year sending a team to the event. For us to have a team that's competitive and that gets seen by a large number of scouts and college coaches, it's very important. It gives the kids an opportunity to showoff what they can do."
Already the recipients of a generous $25,000 donation through the Florida Panthers Community Champions Grant Program, which is presented by Moss Construction, the FSHL also received a second financial boost from the Panthers Alumni Association specifically to help fund their trip to America's Showcase.
"It allows us to provide the kids with five days in Pittsburgh while keeping the cost under $1,000 per player," Gullman said of the donations. "We really don't want a kid not being able to go because of financial reasons. If we didn't have those subsidies from the Panthers, there would be some kids that would have probably been priced out of it.
"The donations also allowed us to provide clinics for our lesser players that don't play travel hockey or don't get a lot of ice time during the season. These clinics provide coaching that helps them improve their skills and enjoy the high school experience more by allowing them to help their teams. We averaged about 22 kids at each of our seven clinics this past season."
In 1998, the FSHL began operations with four teams and has since grown throughout South Florida, with schools from Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. These schools make up the Panthers Conference (the Lightning Conference in the Tampa Bay area is run by the Florida High School Hockey Association), with the top teams competing in the state tournament.
A not-for-profit organization affiliated with USA Hockey, the FSHL is run and managed by volunteers, such as Gullman, who served as head coach of St. Thomas Aquinas High School's hockey team from 1998-2011.
Having coached St. Thomas to the state's first-ever invitation to the USA Hockey National Championship in 2010, Gullman can only laugh when thinking about just how far youth hockey in Florida has come in a very brief period of time.
"A team from Florida?" said Gullman, chuckling as he reminisced about the lukewarm reception his team received at their first national tournament. "The other teams were giving us all kind of funny looks. But by the end of the tournament we had made it all the way to the finals and people were turning their heads and realizing what an incredible team we had."
With South Florida natives such as Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia Flyers) and Jakob Chychrun (Arizona Coyotes) now making waves in the NHL, however, Gullman believes it won't be long before skaters from the Sunshine State are no longer viewed as underdogs.
"Now we're starting to get some recognition that Florida is a place where hockey players come from," Gullman said. "That's good. The America's Showcase allows kids whose parents necessarily don't want them to leave town a chance to really show off their talent. I think it's really worthwhile for the better players and also really good for the FSHL. A lot of kids now opt to play high school over travel teams because they know that if they play 60 percent of their games in high school they are qualified to play in the showcase."
In order to craft their tournament team, the FSHL, coached by former Panthers forward Peter Worrell, held tryouts to fill a roster consisting of at least 18 skaters and two goaltenders. With a strict limit of only four players from each high school team eligible for the roster, 10 of the 16 teams within the FSHL will have at least one player competing at America's Showcase.
At last year's tournament, the FSHL went undefeated in their bracket, posting an overall record of 3-1-1, and, according to Gullman, over 100 offers were handed out among the team's players out to play at the next level.
"This year, we're hoping for a similar result," Gullman said. "We think we have as good or maybe even better talent heading to the showcase this year."
You can follow all of the action at America's Showcase here.