Hockey may not have the following that other sports enjoy in Florida for obvious reasons, but to say that it is not a popular sport down here would be a gross misconception. Case in point: the Labor Day weekend tournament held at the RDV Sportsplex in the tiny bedroom community of Maitland, just north of downtown Orlando, was almost SRO throughout the entire holiday weekend from Saturday morning through Monday afternoon. True, the crowd was made up of mostly friends and family of all the youth hockey players participating in the tournament, but that is also the case at a little league baseball game. So the Sunshine State has come a long way in its support of this game that was born in the frozen North.
The concept of this annual weekend tournament is pretty simple: the little kids (Mites, Squirts, and Pee Wees) make up the vast majority of the participants and therefore take up most of the ice time, playing all day on Saturday and Sunday and Monday morning as well. Then on Labor Day afternoon the Big Guns finally show up (U16AA) and play their championship games. So if a spectator (assuming no family or friendship ties) only wanted to watch the big kids play, he or she could wait till the very last day of the tournament to attend. Otherwise, it is possible to watch non-stop hockey for 12 hours each of the other two days. In other words, one could actually become hockeyed-out so to speak on Labor Day weekend at the RDV.
The caliber of hockey and the enthusiasm of both the spectators and fans was nothing short of exceptional. As the weekend progressed and the top seeds from each league faced off against each other, it became increasingly apparent that no matter what the age group or skill level, athletes always feel that extra boost of adrenaline come tournament time. There were plenty of flare-ups, lots of good solid checking (remember that checking is totally legal in this league), and some pretty fancy footwork both offensively and defensively. This reporter saw several hip checks that would have made former Edmonton Oiler and New York Ranger Captain Mark Messier proud.
There were close games and there were some minor blowouts. And there was a game that for all the world looked like it was being played in the real Olympic Arena in Lake Placid, New York for the Gold Medal against (pick your own national rival). Less than 5 minutes to go in the third period, Florida Jr. Panthers are up 6-5 on the Brandon Jr. Bulls, and then the unthinkable happens…..Brandon ties the game 6-6 and sends the game into sudden death overtime. Tensions mount to capacity as half of the crowd is yelling “GO PANTHERS!” and the other half “GO BULLS!” And with the flick of a wrist shot and a slight miscalculation by the Panther goalie, it was all over. Brandon had beaten the Florida Jr. Panthers. But there is no shame in playing a great game.
And it was a great tournament as well. The crowd, the players, the staff who made it all possible….. everyone went home with their fill of good old-fashioned hockey played by kids whose hearts beat in total sync with every other player on that ice. For there are no enemies in the game of hockey, only strong rivalries.