Breakaway

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

The SEJHL game is in the Coon Rapids Arena, named after a local suburb. For the USHL games later that afternoon, the facility will be packed. For the Tier II games, however, the complex is relatively empty. The facility has a honeycomb design. After entering the glass front doors, spectators ascend a large staircase to a carpeted atrium on the second floor. Four sides of the atrium have windows overlooking four rinks.

The rink itself, relatively upscale compared to those in Florida, has wooden benches and an almost eerie silence hanging over it. The U.S. and Canadian flags get equal billing here. A wire newspaper rack features a periodical called Hockey Moms, with some pages featuring interviews of various Midwestern mothers whose kids play hockey, and many more pages offering services like equipment cleaning. In attendance is at least one scout, conspicuous because of his black parka and ever-present notebook. His name is Ryan Marvin, and he represents Morrisville College, a school outside of Syracuse, New York, with a Division 3 NCAA team. He seems optimistic about the Floridians' prospects, recalling exactly two who have played on the Morrisville team in the past.

None of the Miami players is in the starting lineup, and during the first period, the SEJHL All-Stars play pretty dreadfully. They are sluggish and seem to fall more than usual. Victor gets the game's first penalty, for hooking an opposing player with his stick. Otherwise the Miami players make no major moves, nor are they given much time on the ice. Their team is down by three at the end of the first period.

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

The second period sees a change of pace. The All-Stars, who are clearly not accustomed to playing with one another, begin to work together more smoothly. The Miami players hold their own, but players from the other SEJHL teams score the first three goals, followed by another two in the second quarter. By the end of the game, the teams are tied 5-5. Unsure about what happens after the buzzer, the audience remains sitting while the skaters glide in small personal circles around the ice. Finally a tournament official bounds up the stairs of the bleachers and announces, "Five minutes of four-on-four, then a five-on-five shootout. If it's still tied then, it's over." Nobody scores in the five-minute overtime, and the shootout begins.

Hockey goalies look like some sort of marine mammal stranded on land, so heavily weighted down in padding (particularly the inflexible chaps) they can do little more than waddle. Their stick is awkward as well; shorter, with a wider fin, rather ineffectual and rarely used. Instead of hands, the goalie uses a webbed mitt that offers all the dexterity of a club foot. If he can secure the puck, the ref blows the whistle and it is out of play. Usually by that time, four or five offensive players skating at full speed have already tumbled over the hapless, immobile goalie, who then must flounder awkwardly until he can properly right himself again. It doesn't look like much fun and seems like a particularly lonely position during shootouts.

The SEJHL goalie fails to stop the first shot, and the team's first shooter fails to score. This happens again in the second round. Rocket skates out to take the third shot. Alone on the ice, he looks smaller than ever. He skates forward from the center line, weaving the puck from side to side. With a neat tap, he slides the puck just to the right of the goalie's skate and into the net. In the end, however, the All-Stars lose to the CHA Select, 4-2.

However, the four Miamians emerge from the locker room unfazed, clutching maroon-and-gold envelopes and talking excitedly. They'd been approached by a recruiter to attend Robert Morris College in Chicago, which has a Division 1 Club team in the American College Hockey Association. (There was a little confusion at first — one of the players calling it Philip Morris College.) As the foursome stands in the hallway, the USHL players begin filing in for their 1:30 p.m. game. They are hulking — broad-shouldered and topping six feet — their faces scarred. The Miamians are too giddy with their good fortune to notice. Rocket and Devin may still be in high school, but for Richie and Victor the only problem is how to break the news to their girlfriends that they will be moving away next summer.

They head to the dormitory cafeteria for lunch. As they step out into the cold, everyone is shivering in hooded sweatshirts, except Richie, who is snug in a leather coat with a sheepskin collar. Over potato salad, soup, and sandwiches, Victor wonders about how he can fit in both the fire academy and Robert Morris, as he dips Doritos into chicken-and-wild-rice soup, to the disgust of everyone else at the table.

"I have to go call my number one," says Victor, suddenly standing up.

"Your mom?" asks Rocket.

"My girlfriend would kill me if she knew I said that," says Victor, opening up his cell phone.

The SEJHL team has planned to reunite and watch the USHL Tier I team play later. They are aware of what differences to expect between their level of play and that of their Nordic counterparts. "There will be a lot less hitting," says Rocket. "Not as much getting stuck in a corner with everyone trying to get the puck."

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