Florida 500: The History of Ice Hockey in Florida

Manon Rheaume is the first, and only, woman to play in a NHL game.
Manon Rheaume is the first, and only, woman to play in a NHL game.

At first, many people don’t associate ice hockey with Florida. The temperature in the state rarely gets below freezing and there have only been four players in the NHL who have been born in Florida. But even with this lack ice, snow and experience, Florida has slowly become a decent hockey state. In fact, only California and New York have more NHL hockey teams than Florida.

At what point in time can we trace the birth of hockey in Florida? That is quite a  hard question to answer. In the 1977 movie Slapshot, which is a cult classic among hockey players, talked about moving the struggling Charlestown Chiefs to Ft. Lauderdale. Even at that time, there were no real roots in Florida.

In the 1970s,  ice rinks around the state started to pop up. The three rinks that were built during this time were the Orlando Ice Skating Palace, which have been demolished, Glacier Ice & Snow Arena in Pompano Beach and Clearwater Ice Arena, both which still exist today. These eventually became the gathering place for those that were homesick or wanted to learn how to stake. These three ice rinks were Genesis for what would eventually become the introduction of pro ice hockey in Florida.

In the early 1980s, youth leagues, like the Orlando Youth Hockey Association, would bring kids together to play hockey. Parents would drive their kids hundreds of miles to play a series of games on the weekends. These youth organizations would play one another as well as other youth organizations around the south. But this new generation of both hockey players and hockey fans sparked a love of hockey in the State of Florida that nobody had ever seen. While it was just a small gathering at the time, youth hockey in Florida would eventually become vast organizations pumping thousands of dollars into programs to help promote youth in Florida’s hockey culture.

These youth organizations eventually branched out into Florida’s universities. Along with the kids that came up through the youth associations, as well as Florida becoming a popular destination for college students from northern states, there eventually became a demand for collegiate hockey. The first university to organize a club hockey team was the USF Bulls in 1987. This was soon followed in mid 1990s by the University of Central Florida and Florida State University. After that, other major universities would eventually have their own club teams.

Because these universities are “club” teams and not part of the NCAA Division I ice hockey program, they relied on their own funding to make their teams successful. None of these teams have ever been able to crack the NCAA bubble and make it to the big time. But these teams would travel around the United States and play powerhouse teams, usually being humiliated. In fact, the only university that has any NCAA Division I or II status is the University of Alabama-Huntsville, which has been the dominate regional powerhouse of collegiate hockey since their formation in 1979.

With the growing popularity of the youth and collegiate organizations, as well as a major influx of northerners to the state, the NHL decided to hold the first ever NHL game in Florida in Orlando on September 24th, 1989 at the newly built Orlando Arena. The pre-season exhibition was held between the New Jersey Devils, who two years earlier shocked the hockey world by almost making the Stanley Cup finals, and the Minnesota North Stars, who would eventually move to Dallas three years later.

Not only was this is first ever NHL game played in the State of Florida, it also holds a place in Cold War history. With the

Soviet legend Viacheslav Fetisov made his NHL debut in Orlando for the New Jersey Devils.
Soviet legend Viacheslav Fetisov made his NHL debut in Orlando for the New Jersey Devils.

introduction of Peristrokia by Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet players were now allowed to play in the NHL. The first Soviet players to ever play in the NHL would play their first game in Orlando. The most important of these players was Slava Fetisov, who was the organizer for the movement to allow Soviet players to play in the NHL. He was eventually inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2001 and is considered one of the best Soviet players ever. Along with Fetisov, Soviet nationals Alexei Kasatonov and Helmuts Balderis also played in that game. Neither one of these players had a successful NHL career.

This game eventually opened the floodgates for NHL expansion into Florida. The NHL was going through its greatest expansion phase since 1967, mostly due to the popularity of Wayne Gretzky and his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. This trade changed hockey from being a purely Canadian and “Yankee” sport from being something that could expand beyond the boundaries of snow and ice.

Early on, Orlando and Miami were considered the front-runners to get an expansion franchise, because they were the only cities that had arenas with ice skating facilities. But this eventually changed when there were no backers for a team in either town and the Tampa Bay area became the leader. Two groups made bids for the team. One was headed by millionaire Peter Karmanos and former NHL player Jim Rutherford. The other was headed by Hockey Hall of Fame brothers Phil and Tony Esposito, with the financial backing of George Steinbrenner. The Espositos won this battle and the Lightning started their first NHL season in 1992.

NHL hockey did not get off to a great start in Florida. With Tampa Bay being awarded a franchise, they had to quickly renovate the Expo Hall in east Tampa for NHL games. This was to only be a temporary home for the team until they moved into the Florida Suncoast Dome, which was originally built in a failed attempt to attract a MLB baseball team to the town. While the Suncoast Dome, which then switched its name to the Thunderdome, held a large amount of people, it was considered by many the worst arena in ice hockey. During this time, cities like Chicago were building state-of-the-art arenas like the United Center. And while the Thunderdome did break some NHL attendance records, including the largest Stanley Cup playoff game  with an attendance of 28,183, set on April 23, 1996, it was still a horrible venue. Because of these facilities, as well as poor overall attendance numbers, there was much talk about the Lightning moving to other cities. Eventually the Tampa Bay Times forum was build in 1996 and the team had a permanent home. Still, this hasn’t been enough for the “are the Lightning moving” rumors to continue.

Even though the Lightning had a rocky start, they have been able to accomplish quite a bit. In 2004, the team won the Stanley Cup becoming only the second team in the former Confederacy to win the Cup (Dallas in 1999 being the other). Another major accomplishment was breaking the gender barrier that had been set in professional sports. Manon Rhéaume became the first and only female to ever play in the NHL. She played in two exhibition games, one in 1992 against the St. Louis Blues and one in 1993 against the Boston Bruins. She would eventually have a career in minor league hockey in male-dominated leagues.

After the Lightning’s first season in the NHL, a second team would arrive in Florida. The Florida Panthers were founded by Blockbuster Video magnate H. Wayne Huizenga in 1992 and first played in 1993-94 season. Even though they were an expansion team, they rose to the top quite quickly. In 1996, they surprised the hockey world be reaching the Stanley Cup finals. While they would eventually lose to the Colorado Avalanche in a triple overtime game in Miami, the hockey craze was in South Florida. One tradition that took hold during the 1995-1996 season was the “rat trick”, where fans would throw plastic rats on the ice as a sort of “good luck charm” as a result of Scott Mellanby scoring two goals after killing a rat inside the locker room.

Much like the Lightning, there has been some worries about the Florida Panthers relocating. With poor attendance figures (constantly performing worse than the Lightning), rumors about the team relocating to towns such as Quebec City, Hartford or Hamilton, Ontario has made the future of NHL hockey in South Florida uncertain. Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup win and decent attendance numbers have made them a less likely candidate for relocation. But for the Panthers, who rarely make the playoffs, relocation is possible. Even with a strong front office, run by Dale Tallon (who built the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks but has a reputation for overspending on players), the Panthers might still see themselves somewhere else in the near future.

Not only has the NHL been able to build some sort of success in Florida, so have minor league teams. The most successful of these teams is the Orlando Solar Bears of the old International Hockey League, or IHL. The IHL was considered the next best league after the NHL. Many quality player started their professional hockey careers in the IHL, including young Russian phenom Sergei Samsonov. In their first year, the Orlando Solar Bears would average over 10,000 fans per home game. But as the team grew on people, attendance would slip. By the time the IHL disbanded in 2001, only a little over 5,000 fans attended the home games. Still, for the Solar Bears, 2001 would be their most successful season, winning their first Turner Cup. Unfortunately it was their last season as well.

In 2011, hockey was reborn in the city where professional hockey started in Florida. The City of Orlando was awarded an East Coast Hockey League team. After the announcement was made that Orlando captured an ECHL franchise, the owners of the organization asked the fans what the team should be named. Easily, the people of Orlando said the “Solar Bears”. Thus, it was the rebirth of one of Orlando’s favorite teams. 2012-13 is the new Orlando Solar Bears’ first season in the ECHL. They are currently netting over 6,500 fans per home game.

Unlike other states which had deep traditional roots in hockey, Florida has had to take a different route. Growing from a few ice rinks in Clearwater, Pompano and Orlando to a Stanley Cup winning franchise in Tampa Bay, Florida has shown that is can be a “hockey state”. Yes, the constant threat of relocation might hurt, but both the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have been around for 20 years. Hopefully they will be around for 20 more.