Ask anybody outside the State of Florida if youth hockey in Florida can hold a candle to hockey in any of the other “traditional” hockey states, and I’m willing to bet 9 out of 10 times (if not more) the answer you will hear is not a chance. With that being said, you certainly can’t ignore the level of success some of the best Tier I youth hockey organizations in the country have seen over the years. Being a Michigan man myself, I remember growing up in the heyday of Little Caesars, Honeybaked, Compuware and Belle Tire, just to name a few of the Metro Detroit area based Tier I groups. Fast forward a few years (lets call it 15 years), and a few more Tier I teams have been added to the Metro Detroit list; Victory Honda, Oakland Jr. Grizzlies, again just to name a few.
Each of these organizations have seen many talented players move through their programs. Do you all remember a fella by the name of Blake Coleman? He won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 (not a big deal). In his youth, he played for Belle Tire. Or what about Detroit Red Wings captain, Dylan Larkin, or St. Louis Blues defensemen Torey Krug? They also spent time with Belle Tire. In addition to those notables, Belle Tire, Victory Honda, the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies, and literally every one of the teams I mentioned above, have had players commit to various NCAA programs (University of Michigan, Michigan State, UMass Lowell, Harvard, just to name a few), OHL teams, NAHL teams, USHL teams, and let’s not forget about those that were granted the opportunity to put on their nations colors in the US National Team Development Program (USNTDP).
You may be thinking to yourself, there’s NO WAY a team from Florida could hang with these teams. Further to that, you may be thinking, there’s absolutely 0% chance a group of HIGH SCHOOL KIDS from the LHSHL would be able to take on these teams and hold their own. Well, I’m here to tell you, the Tampa Bay Lightning Elite Development Program (EDP) headed to the Mitten State on May 13th to take on a few of these teams in the Detroit AAA Showdown, and they represented themselves, the LHSHL, and the Tampa Bay Lightning organization the way we knew they could.
Now, before I get into the games themselves, for those of you that don’t know what EDP is, let me give you a brief background. In short, it is a team of LHSHL All-Stars. In order to be eligible to play in the Elite Development Program, a player must have played in the LHSHL this season. This means that EDP is only pulling players from within the LHSHL footprint, which currently includes Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. And again, just because a player may live/go to school in those counties, the only way they are eligible to play in the Elite Development Program, is if they were on an LHSHL roster. Meaning if Wayne Gretzky lived in Hillsborough County, while he may be the great one, if he didn’t play in the LHSHL, he is not eligible to play in the Elite Development Program. This program was created and designed to give our local student athletes an opportunity for advanced training, exposure, and assistance in reaching the next level in their hockey career, whatever that may mean to that player.
Now, you have a background on EDP. The crew was scheduled to take on Belle Tire, Victory Honda and the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies. Let’s look a bit closer at how our opponents faired in the 20-21 season.
Victory Honda finished the season ranked 21st in the country among all 18U Tier I national bound teams. They finished the season 36-22-2, and outscored their opponents 192-133. (average 3.2-2.2).
Belle Tire finished the season ranked 11th in the country among all 18U Tier I national bound teams, with a record of 42-20-2. Outscoring their opponents 215-133 (average 3.4-2.0).
The Oakland Jr. Grizzlies finished the season ranked 10th in the country among all 18U Tier I national bound teams, with a record of 21-11-1, and outscoring their opponents 123-87 (average 3.7-2.6).
Without a doubt, the boys from Tampa were up against some stiff competition. Heading in to the tournament, this group had not played a single game together, and only had a months’ worth of practices under head coach Glen Metropolit to prepare.
A tough opponent to open up the 2021 Spring EDP season against. Now yes, Belle Tire has split their 18U squad in to 2 groups for this tournament, but don’t kid yourself. BOTH their teams in the tournament were strong.
To say the EDP roster needed to shake the rust off would be an understatement. First shift of the game, 1st goal for Belle Tire. Second shift of the game, 2nd goal for Belle Tire. Less than 2 minutes into the game, and EDP is already down 2-0. Coach Metropolit sends messages of positivity, confidence and strength to the boys on the bench, and the boys settle down, and start to play their game. Over the next period and a half, EDP would outscore Belle Tire 2-1, with goals by Richard Biszant and Carsan Cabral-Downes, making the score 3-2 Belle Tire with less than 4 minutes to go in the game. EDP would pull their goalie Spencer Rose for the extra attacker, but it would not be enough. Belle Tire adds an empty netter, and EDP dropped game 1, 4-2.
Say what you want, but you take away those first 2 shifts of nerves, and of course the empty netter, and that’s a 2-1 EDP win. Not a bad way to start the weekend.
What’s tougher than playing one of the top teams/organizations in the country for your first game as a team? How about playing your first 2 games as a team against one of the top teams/organizations in the country… IN THE SAME DAY.
After falling behind 2-0 through the first period, EDP would tighten up on defense, and shut out Belle Tire in the 2nd period. With Brennan Robbins taking a penalty as the 2nd period came to a close, EDP started the 3rd period on the penalty kill. But don’t tell EDP to sit back on the PK.
Cabral-Downes would steal the puck off the opening draw, a little dipsy-do, over to Matthew Special, bada-bing-bada-boom, a shortie gets EDP on the board, and its 2-1 bad guys, with a lot of time left on the clock.
While EDP saw success on the PK early in the 3rd, an EDP penalty later in the period would not result in the same outcome. Belle Tire would score on the powerplay, and they would not look back and EDP dropped game 2.
This game…. The only way I can describe this game is by using the phrase GONG SHOW. Not because the score was crazy out of control, or anybody got blown out or anything like that. Let me put it to you this way….. in a game with three 14 minute periods (42 total game minutes)… there were 155 minutes in penalties called, which included 5 player ejections from Victory Honda, and 4 player ejections from EDP….155 MINUTES IN PENALTIES!!!! 92 of which were called against Victory Honda on 20 infractions.
What we would learn in speaking to other teams at the tournament, Victory Honda has a…. reputation of sorts. Every hit they delivered had arms/elbow/hands up in the face of our players. Coach Metropolit attempted to bring it to the attention of the officials, as there was no doubt that at some point the game would get out of hand if players weren’t held accountable. Sure enough, things did get out of hand in the second period, beginning with a member of Victory Honda putting Myles Jackson in a headlock, and attempting to rip off his helmet. Myles did the right thing, and just stood there as he was being taken advantage of. 1st ejection goes to Victory Honda.
Fast forward a few minutes, another Victory Honda player attempts to put Michael Romeo in a headlock, and this time is successful in pulling off his helmet. I could go on and on with the play by play on player ejections, penalties etc. but I will leave it at this; 5 Victory Honda players were ejected, and 4 EDP players were ejected, Michael Romeo, Richard Biszant, Matthew Raleigh, and Jaxson Anderson.
From the coaches perspective, you never want to see your players ejected, or involved in the types of altercations that took place on the ice that afternoon. And in all instances, even where EDP players were booted from the game, they were not the instigators, and did everything they could, short of allowing their opponent to take free shots at their face, to not retaliate. As the game got out of hand, officials started handing out free passes to the locker room to any player involved, even if they didn’t start it or retaliate, in an attempt to restore order.
The score? Oh yeah, the score. Victory Honda would score 1 goal per period, and the game would end 3-0 bad guys
Down 4 players, EDP used the previous game as an opportunity to come together as a group, and started actually playing, for the first time all weekend, as a team. Despite starting the game on shaky grounds (again) by allowing the first goal of the game less than 4 minutes in, EDP tightened their skates, and came marching back. Carsan Cabral-Downes would open the scoring (assist to Speciale & Rosello) for EDP to tie it at 1 at the end of the first. Josh McKeen (assist to Payton Jenkins) would put EDP in the lead late in the second period. With their goalie pulled, the Midwest Knights would tie the game late in the third, and we would head to a shootout.
EDP would shoot first in a best of 3 turned 9-round shootout. Cabral-Downes goes first and scores. 2 Knights shooters later, they would match Carsan’s goal, and we were headed to extras. Other EDP shooters included Kevin Rosello, Aiden Besedic, Matthew Speciale, Brennan Robbins, Zander Badger, Joey Cullen, Payton Jenkins and Jacob Lloren.
Through all of that, both goaltenders stood on their head, with EDP goaltender Heath Chancey putting up an outstanding performance. Unfortunately on the Knights 9th shot, they would score the winning goal, and EDP drops a tight one in a shootout.
Remember all of those suspended players? They were back in the lineup for our weekend finale in a scrimmage game we scheduled outside of the tournament. Being outside of the tournament, the game format was a bit different. This game was played with 17 minute periods, and a zam cut between the 2nd and 3rd.
EDP came out hot and looking for blood. Josh McKeen would put EDP on the board first (assist Josh Weinstein) on the powerplay, and half way through the game, it’s 1-0 good guys! As the second period ended, the message from the coaching staff was simple, keep your foot on the gas. Do not let up! Tick, tick tick, tick tick…the clock started to wind down in the 3rd period. 2:20 to play, and the Grizzlies pull their goalie. Tick tick tick…. 1:30 to play… tick tick… 1:20… the Grizzlies tie the game with the net empty.
1-1 the score. 1:20 to play. Plenty of time to get the go ahead goal. EDP presses the Grizzlies and are in control in the Oakland zone when a puck sneaks by the EDP defense, and the Grizzlies are off to the races the other way. Fake right, go left, and the puck was in the back of the net. 2-1 Grizzlies with less that 30 seconds remaining. The clock would hit 0:00, and EDP would lose a heart breaker 2-1.
Now yes, you can say EDP went 0-4-1 while in Michigan. But if I were you, I wouldn’t focus on the record. Lets go back to the question I asked at the beginning of this article; Can youth hockey in Florida hold a candle to hockey in any of the other “traditional” hockey markets? Yes. Absolutely. Lets look at what some of you may have been thinking before you started reading this article… there’s absolutely 0% chance a group of HIGH SCHOOL KIDS from the LHSHL would be able to take on these teams and hold their own. This group just took on some of the best organizations in the country. Ranked in the top 20 in the country. And in every game they played over the weekend, they were in a position to win. That’s a huge nod to hockey in Florida, and an even bigger nod to hockey right here in the Tampa area. This group is not made up of the best players from around the entire state of Florida. This is a group of student athletes from right here in our backyard. I think it’s safe to say, the hockey future is bright.
If you are interested in watching this group take to the ice, throughout the month of June, EDP will be playing some exhibition games against USF, UT and Florida Southern.