Breakaway

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

Dinner had been cookies and chips from a Hess station on the outskirts of Naples, and the game's few highlights had been thoroughly relived; now it is time to sleep. There is nothing to see out the windows of the bus hurtling back east on Alligator Alley but the impenetrable darkness of the swamp at night, and after yet another loss in what is beginning to look like a streak — beaten by the Florida Eels, a team Miami had decidedly trounced a few weeks before — nobody is much in the mood for talking. It is a rare silence, thick with the smell of two dozen boys in late adolescence who recently had been sweating profusely. When the bus pulls into the empty parking lot of Kendall Ice Arena, it is 3:30 a.m.


In spite of the impossibility of their existence, ice rinks in South Florida blend in seamlessly with the world around them, uninspired cinder-block rectangles with ovals inside. They belong to a franchised landscape in which the idea of a frozen pond — of dead cattails under an opaque winter sky, of a barren landscape muffled with snow — is almost comically unfathomable. The purpose of South Florida, its reason for spreading flat in all directions, is to escape winter.

Rocket Kokas, whose jersey is marked with an A for alternate captain, and Victor Cobian, the team's captain, are among Timpone's most ambitious players
Jacqueline Carini
Rocket Kokas, whose jersey is marked with an A for alternate captain, and Victor Cobian, the team's captain, are among Timpone's most ambitious players
Junior Hockey is known not only for its faster pace but also for its physical aggression. Toros player Shawn Matthewman (with ice pack) nurses his war wounds
Jacqueline Carini
Junior Hockey is known not only for its faster pace but also for its physical aggression. Toros player Shawn Matthewman (with ice pack) nurses his war wounds

As such, the decision of a young man or woman in Florida to play a game so far removed from its roots, and to want to do so seriously, is difficult to understand. Not only is it an open act of rebellion against the culture that surrounds them — and an expensive one at that, with hockey equipment and fees running about $8000 a year, according to one parent — but also it is not a readily accessible sport.

Some Toros commute to the rink in West Kendall from Broward, an hour-long drive on a good day. For games in their five-team southeastern conference, the Toros bus as far as North Carolina at least twice a season. Even within Florida, the teams are hours apart, and a game will usually occupy an entire Saturday, if not the whole weekend.

Junior Hockey consists of a national conglomerate of under-twenty leagues that are tiered according to skill level, the intensity of a league's practice schedule, and the size of its budget, all determined by umbrella organization USA Hockey. At the top level of Junior Hockey is the United States Hockey League, whose teams import players from as far away as Sweden and Finland to places like Waterloo, Iowa; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where team budgets can top one million dollars. At the bottom is, well, Florida. (The Southeast Junior Hockey League [SEJHL] is classified as Tier II, Level C.) But Junior Hockey is the pool from which scouts from the NHL, the NCAA, and the competitive college club leagues choose their players. Until three years ago, when the SEJHL began, Floridians with such ambitions had to leave home and play on teams in the Northeast or Midwest.

The Toros represent the first generation of Miami-based players to have a fleeting shot at earning a place on a college team. For Timpone, the payoff for achieving Junior status was the chance for four players from the Miami club to join an SEJHL all-star team and travel to Blaine, Minnesota, for the USA Hockey Junior Jamboree — a showcase tournament for Junior Hockey players where even Florida will have the chance to play before scouts.

Just one daunting prospect: those Tier I guys — the Swedes, the Canadians, and the Minnesotans; the Yeti-size teenagers who were suckled on icicles, whose names fill the ranks of NHL Central Scouting's list of most talented Junior Hockey players. They, too, will be at the November showcase.

Rick Smith can remember Polar Palace, an ice rink that stood next to Miami Jai-Alai 25 years ago. It was half the size of a regular arena, and the rink was surrounded by a chainlink fence instead of Plexiglas. Smith is a swarthy Brooklyn native who in his youth played Junior Hockey in Ontario and on minor pro teams in the United States. His ambitions were somewhat diminished when he moved to Florida to start a family, and when his son Richie was born in 1987, his ice time was limited to pick-up games at the Palace or at another now-extinct ice rink in Sunrise.

But Smith was not put off by the difficulty of finding ice in Florida. He had Richie in skates at age four, and while working as a rink manager at the Gold Coast Arena — the Pompano Beach practice site of the Florida Panthers — he would coach his son during off-hours, late into the night, or early in the morning. Now nineteen years old, Richie is a defender for the Toros. An affable, sandy-haired student at Palm Beach Community College, he was among those selected to attend the Junior Jamboree in Minnesota. His dad will be the team's adult chaperone.

Richie knows the limitations that living in Florida has placed on his development as a player. Although he began skating as a preschooler, he is probably the only native Floridian on the Toros who began so young; in other words, he was deprived of the competition offered to players in hockey-crazy places, where toddlers are strapped into skates at age two or three. Richie's girlfriend, Adrian, is an ever-present figure at Toros games, along with his mom, a gravelly voiced blond named Brandy. Both mother and girlfriend tend to belt out spirited chants of "Come on, Richie" during games, with a competitive spirit that might unnerve a less laconic player, but Richie doesn't seem to mind.

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