In 2004, everything changed for the sport of ice hockey in the Tampa Bay area. A team did whatever it would take to win a championship and bring Lord Stanley to not only the city of Tampa, but the state of Florida. Since that time, a new community has been formed and has portrayed an uncanny sense of unity in the area.
Berkeley Prep’s senior forward Anuj Bhatia, of the Lightning High School Hockey League, recalls that time in 2004; when he first “learned” what hockey was, which took place at the Tampa Bay Lightning championship parade and after the team had won its first ever Stanley Cup.
Now, 13 years later, Bhatia acts as the Berkeley Buccaneers team captain and is featured in the LHSHL’s second Senior Spotlight for the 2017-2018 season.
“The first time I realized what ‘hockey was;’ was that day at the 2004 championship parade,” said Bhatia. “And, shortly after that I got involved with Hockey 101 at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy (TBSA) and joined a recreational league.”
Then, Bhatia was only four-years-old. The West Chase native took such an interest in both the Lightning and what ‘hockey was,’ that he excelled and eventually became a travel hockey player too.
“It’s such an interesting dynamic (the idea of playing hockey) in the sense that you can play other sports such as tennis or football, while doing things like running; which is inherited and a part of human nature. But, to have that ice skating aspect, plus the sport, are two things that you have to learn and balance at once,” added Berkeley’s captain.
“It’s truly a dynamic game, where one minute you could be playing offense and then the next second the puck turns back the other way and you have to play defense.”
Aside from Bhatia’s passion for ice hockey, Berkeley’s leading goal-scorer from last season (17G-8A-25pts) has found other interests and in the areas of science and math, as well as being consistently involved with volunteering in the Tampa community. Yes, science and math are Bhatia’s favorite subjects in school, but the longtime hockey player sees a career in the field of science too.
“My goal (post college) is to become a Physician Scientist, and work in a lab with a pharmaceutical company,” added a smiling Bhatia.
The senior High School Hockey player already has experience in the pharmaceutical field, as he was accepted into the Summer Research Internship program at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, this past summer. There was no doubting Bhatia’s interest for this matter, as his face lit up and with a sense of devotion.
“I was working in a lab, and we were working on uveal melanoma; which is melanoma of the eye. That opened the door for me and for the science potion of the field, and then volunteering there had that humane and giving-back feeling-aspect,” said Bhatia.
Additionally, Berkeley’s stud hockey player volunteers with various organizations around the Tampa Bay area. On a weekly basis, he dedicates time to assist the John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Morton Plant Mease Countryside Hospital in Pinellas County. But the five-foot-five center’s dedication to make a difference in the community doesn’t stop there, as Bhatia is also involved with the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Sled Hockey Program.
“Anuj volunteered himself to help out with our practices, and I was so excited to hear a member of one of our High School teams was willing to donate their time to help our practices and become more productive for the players,” said Kristen Bowness of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Community Hockey Department and Sled Hockey Program.
Bhatia embraced the role of coaching and being able to inspire in anyway when asked if he liked the idea of coaching any level or form of hockey. “I think that’s one of the most rewarding things as coach, or player, is being able to help out in any way with a drill; or, approach a certain situation that a player may face out on the ice.”
Bowness also acknowledged Bhatia’s commitment towards the program.
“What stood out the most was his willingness to help out in any way possible. He wanted to help our program and was willing to fill any void we had,” said Bowness. “Our goalie (Eric) really loved the individual one-on-one time with Anuj when he was warming him up, or giving him practice from a different shooting angle. Eric would ask for specific shots or angles, and Anuj definitely make him work for any saves he made.”
While Bhatia has displayed his admirable community services acts, he also spoke highly of how High School Hockey has helped unified the community in the area.
“The league (LHSHL) is a great way for everyone in the area to come together for hockey every Friday night, and it’s great for all of the league’s teams to see each other too,” said Bhatia. “One thing that definitely stands out, and that I’ve enjoyed most about playing for Berkeley, is the fans. Berkeley spirit at games is awesome, and we’re able to bring out a good number and group of fans.
If it’s a Friday night game at TBSA…it’s going to be packed,” added Bhatia.
“Pride,” was the first word that came to mind for Bhatia when asked what it meant to play all four years at Berkeley, and the team’s Head Coach didn’t hesitate to commend his captain.
“He’s the cream of the crop,” said Berkeley Head Coach Bernard Skerkowski.
The second-year coach in Skerkowski , plus his staff, didn’t have to think twice about naming Bhatia captain for this season, either. “Oh, there was no doubt he was our guy. His skills stand out immediately on the ice, and he has the ability to communicate with the other kids; no matter how old they are, or what their skill level may be.”
And, while Skerkowski has only coached Bhatia for one season – the Head Coach for the Buccaneers already has an admirable memory of his team’s leader.
“We were heading down to Ellenton for a game last season, and we weren’t sure if we’d have enough players that night; so we were about to forfeit the game, but then Anuj called and convinced me that we should play with whatever players that we had available,” said Skerkowski. “He must have played all but five minutes of the game, and while playing defense.”
“That’s what you expect from, Anuj. He’s going to do whatever it takes.”
(The Lightning High School Hockey League can be followed on Twitter @TBLHSHL)
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