Breakaway

Against long odds and even longer distances, a group of Miami-Dade teens competes for a shot at hockey glory

The drive from Kendall Ice Arena to Fort Myers Skatium takes about two and a half hours. On a late October Saturday at sunset, the pilot of the coach bus opts for the back roads, heading north up Krome Avenue and then west on Okeechobee Road, past the urban development boundary, through the forest of dead trees and wading birds that marks the fringes of the Everglades.

The upholstered interior of the bus is subdued: most of the guys, ages fifteen to twenty, sit alone, heads pressed against tinted windows. Most ears have little white wires dangling from them. Eyes are shut against the glare of driving due west at sunset. Shiny cellophane bags — the remnants of a Frito-Lay variety pack of Costco proportions, provided by a mother who couldn't bear the thought of anyone going hungry — litter the seats. In the back, wrinkled khaki pants, dress shirts, and ties droop from hangers.

Ice rinks in Florida are few and far between, competitive hockey teams even more so. The bus feels lived in.

The Toros gather between periods in their Kendall Ice Arena locker room, which is under construction. Junior Hockey is still new to Miami
Jacqueline Carini
The Toros gather between periods in their Kendall Ice Arena locker room, which is under construction. Junior Hockey is still new to Miami
Toros coach Joe Timpone has big dreams for Miami hockey
Jacqueline Carini
Toros coach Joe Timpone has big dreams for Miami hockey

Joe Timpone, head coach and owner of the Miami Toros Junior Hockey Club, is at his most enthusiastic. He likes this pregame travel time, when he visits with each of his teenage charges and asks them how things are going, about their girlfriends, their jobs, or school, to clear out any cobwebs of stress or distraction that might inhibit their play in the game ahead. He is excited about the fact that today's bus driver is named Oscar Toro, just like the team. "Toro! Can you believe that? Isn't that great?" he enthuses. He has brought along his dog, Bailey, who trots up and down, periodically licking any hand draped too far into the aisle.

"Isn't she a nice dog?" he inquires of nobody.

"That dog is going to be barbecued by the end of the night," someone mutters in the back.

Timpone, whom his players affectionately refer to as "Tampon," hails from Long Island. He's tall, a stripe of gray in his hair, looking like a prep school teacher in his navy blazer and tie. Fifteen months ago he moved to Miami to take over the Kendall Ice Arena's hockey program. He has coached and played hockey at every level, from youth to professional, on minor-league pro teams in Utica, New York; Danville, Illinois; Roanoke, Virginia; and Daytona Beach. Timpone believes in the far-fetched notion of Florida hockey. He believes in it like a religion.

Tonight's game, in which the Miami Toros will play the Florida Eels at Fort Myers Skatium, doesn't begin until 9:00 p.m. The bus pulls into the Skatium's parking lot some 45 minutes before start time as the players stand in the aisle, changing out of their shorts and T-shirts and into their disheveled, coach-mandated attire: button-down shirt, tie, khakis. Timpone says the business-casual wardrobe is an intimidation tactic, but the effect is diminished by the guys who forget, for example, to bring their pants.

The hockey players range from skinny kids with the faint beginnings of mustaches to six-footers who tower over the rest. All are unusually tan for their sport, with surfer haircuts bleached by the sun. They lazily file into the aisle and out the bus door, blinking. They grab their coffin-size duffel bags of malodorous equipment from the bus's lower cavity, pick up their bundled sticks, and enter the chill of the fluorescent-lit Skatium. Like most rinks, it smells of locker rooms and stale socks.

Junior hockey games are marked by a great deal of ceremony, but in Fort Myers the glory of the team's intro is hampered by a man in shorts and a University of Michigan sweatshirt, who shuffles across the ice from the announcer's booth, speaks briefly with a player at the door of the rink, then turns around and yells "Miami Toros" to the blond at the microphone. "THE MIAMI TOROS!" she announces, to meager applause. The team streams out onto the ice. Unrecognizable in padding and facemasks, the players look vaguely like some exotic breed of beetle, some alien species with a penchant for swarming.

The sparse fans in the bleachers rise for the National Anthem, but after a moment of uncomfortable silence in which the tape won't play, the announcer dispenses with the formality. "LET'S PLAY HOCKEY!"

The Toros lose. The game is dirty: two players expelled, fistfights a little more extreme than the norm. At one point, after an Eel jumps on a Toro from behind, rips off his mask, and smooshes his face into the ice, the entire team seems to be throwing punches. Toward the end of the game, both penalty boxes are full, and at the final buzzer, the Toros have lost 4-6.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, someone sitting in the back of the bus begins asking Eric Charles, at fifteen years old the youngest of the Toros, to turn down Monster-in-Law, which is playing on the little TV screens mounted above the seats. A half-hour earlier, the bus had erupted in a mass hooting upon Jennifer Lopez's appearance during the opening credits, but the enthusiasm quickly subsided. Now more shouts come from the back: "Just turn it off!"

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