Published On: Sun, Apr 9th, 2017

Youth Hockey on the Rise in South Florida

By: Jack Rubin

Despite the fact that the Florida Panthers have remained mostly non-competitive, and with the limited number of rinks available, youth hockey is on the rise in South Florida.

When a hockey player has recognizable talent in South Florida, they have had to move north to play at a boarding school and be noticed by scouts. The South Florida Hockey Academy (SFHA) was created with a simple goal in mind, which gives Floridian youth hockey new life.

Founded by Olli Jokinen and Mikko Saarni, SFHA is designed to keep youth talent at home. No one wants to have to send their child away for high school, but right now it is their only way to make their mark as a player. The Academy wants prospects to stay with one rink throughout their whole development and they believe that they have the perfect formula with their NHL experience.

“One of the reasons why we wanted to have an academy here is that if you’re good enough to play [Division I] hockey you will not have to leave Florida,” Jokinen said. “Through our program you can stay home and live with your family.”

SFHA will compete at the AAA level, which is the highest level of youth hockey in the U.S. and Canada.

The Academy’s first season came to a conclusion in late February. SFHA’s only team for their inaugural 2016-17 season was the squirt AAA group. Coached by two-time Stanley Cup champion Petr Sykora and ex-Panther Radek Dvorak, the 9-11 year olds improved tremendously through the season.

“It was a good year,” Jokinen said. “The main thing for us, it’s not about winning games, everything in youth hockey is about the kids. When a player enters the program it is our job to make them better.”

SFHA has ambitious plans for the future. Moving into the 2017-18 year, the Academy expects to field three teams. While they prioritize all levels of the game, the Academy is most excited to see their U16 AAA team hit the ice. Jokinen will coach the teenagers along with his longtime teammate and goalie Tomas Vokoun.

The U16 team will showcase talent from all around the world. With full-time commits from Europe, multiple different states, and local players, they will be ready to compete against the best. They are high school students first though, as the Academy stresses. Through their official partnership with Saint Andrew’s School in Boca Raton, SFHA players will receive a top of the line education.

While the Academy hopes to restructure youth hockey, they still have uphill battles to fight. One visit to Glacier Ice and Snow Arena summarizes the current state of hockey’s roots in South Florida. The arena was built in 1981 and has been deteriorating since. SFHA is making do with what they have, but with their aggressive plans for the future, it will be impossible to stay at the outdated facility.

“We’ll be able to keep three teams for now, but the challenge will be when we have five teams because of the single ice surface here,” Jokinen said.

The Academy is committed to their mission, but a new rink will be necessary sometime in the future. They are advancing in talks with the City of Boca Raton to build an ice rink. A prospective location is near the Spanish River Library.

“I think we will have a rink very soon,” he said. “We are very confident that we have a great group of investors outside of our Academy that want to build a rink. Things look very good.”

If built near the Spanish River Athletic Park, the rink would complete Boca’s athletic sphere. Should the plans fall through, the Academy remains confident that through their relationship with Saint Andrews, something will be accomplished.

Jokinen believes the primary reason there is not a rink in Boca yet is due to troubles answering the question of “who is going to use it”. Since the Academy provides a clear answer to that question, Jokinen expects the city will be easy to work with.

As the academy builds, it contributes to a much larger motion in the hockey world. Southern hockey is continuing to make massive strides in the NHL. It is healthy for any sport to have a diverse audience, and the NHL’s expansion south is a major component of their quest to grow the game.

“The better the NHL team is, the more kids will start playing. It’s a huge impact,” Jokinen said.

The Academy also hosts its professional camp over the summer, where they hosted over 126 players in 2016.

“A lot of players spend their offseasons down here, and everybody needs to skate at some point,” Jokinen said. “The players are happy that there is now a spot where you can get everything in one place.”

SFHA is making waves in the hockey community. The game needs South Florida.
“It is the same as all the prep schools – the difference with us is we have beautiful weather and you still get to play the game you love,” Jokinen said.

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