By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
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.
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!"
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.
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.
The other three players invited to attend the Jamboree Victor Cobian, Ronald "Rocket" Kokas, and Devin Maroney are all converts from roller hockey and did not even get on the ice until age nine or ten, practically elderly in ambitious hockey circles.
Victor Cobian looks like a younger Ryan Phillippe, has appeared as a model in Teen Vogue, sometimes wears diamond earrings, and wants to become a fireman. Already an emergency medical technician, the nineteen-year-old attends Miami Dade College and has been accepted to its fire academy. He met Rocket Kokas on the roller hockey rink when Rocket was seven, and the two have been friends since. Rocket is impish, talkative, and seventeen, a junior at Palmetto Senior High who has a cheerleading squad of small cousins sitting in the bleachers at every game with his number painted on their faces. True to his nickname, Rocket is fast on the ice, and he's one of the Toros' top scorers.
Both Rocket and Victor are tan and smallish in stature, and prone to making jokes. On the bus to the game in Fort Myers, the two sit at the front of the bus, making fun of teammate Mike Hauch (pronounced hock). "Does anybody know if Mike Hauch is coming?" one would yell out, and the other would reply, "Mike Hauch always comes late," or "All I know is Mike Hauch is going to score tonight" to endless amusement.
The fourth player selected to travel to Minnesota is Devin Maroney, also a junior at Palmetto Senior High. Maroney, quiet to the point of seeming almost bashful, is a forward with longish hair who wears a hemp necklace. On the whole, he is well mannered, in stark contrast to most players in his chosen sport.
The four teammates leave for Minnesota from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport early the day before the showcase. They are buoyed by an 8-0 rout of the Florida Eels the night before, only three weeks after their frustrating loss. Because Rocket and Devin are still in high school, the trip for them is a little more relaxed than for Richie and Victor, who are nearing the under-twenty age limit for junior hockey. For them the showcase might be one of their last chances to be scouted for a college team, which both hope for desperately. Although Victor has his fireman ambitions, and Richie a job working for his dad, they have made sacrifices for hockey and want to see them pay off.
For Victor the trip is also something of a vindication. When he was fifteen, he attended a summer training camp at the World Hockey Centre in Toronto. At the end of the summer, he was recruited to play for a Junior Hockey team in the Ontario Hockey League the Valhalla of the sport. He would have been one of the only Americans on the team, which boasted players from Sweden, Switzerland, and Russia. But Victor is a Florida boy, and the boredom of small-town Ontario was too much for him.
"It was fun for the first two months, but it was in the middle of nowhere," he remembers. "All we did was play hockey every day. We never went out, we never went to the movies; we just played hockey like robots."
So he returned home, knowing full well what it meant for his hockey career. Now the Toros have given him another shot at making a college team maybe not a club as good as one he would've joined post-Ontario, but at least his adolescence consisted of more than just hockey games.
The players arrive in Minnesota to a minor crisis: Their sticks somehow got lost along the way. The Toros are told their sticks will be delivered to them later in the day, and men with clipboards from USA Hockey load the players onto a van heading toward the showcase site in a nearby suburb.
That Richie's father was a hockey player isn't the young man's only advantage. As the group steps out into the wintry air, it becomes evident: He is the only one of the four who owns a winter coat.
The Schwan Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota, is named, appropriately enough, for a local frozen-food company. But Super Rink is something of a misnomer, because it actually comprises eight rinks, two clustered groups of four. Blaine (which locals joke is both bland and plain) is a suburb 30 miles due north of Minneapolis; the town's biggest feature is the National Sports Center, "the world's largest amateur sports and meeting facility." In addition to the Super Rink, the NSC has a velodrome, indoor and outdoor tracks, and a golf course built specifically for youth golfers. It also holds a Guinness World Record for being the world's largest soccer complex. In mid-November, however, when the temperature hovers in the mid-thirties during the day and colder at night, the surrounding prairie of soccer fields is brown and dead, fringed with leafless trees and a few barren rows of identical housing developments. The only parking lot with any cars in it is outside the Super Rink, where at 9:00 a.m. November 13 the SEJHL All-Stars kicked off the Junior Jamboree against the Continental Hockey Association (CHA) Select.
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 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."
This, it turns out, is an understatement. The Schwan Super Rink is now packed for the USHL showcase. At least 80 scouts have come to watch the games, including representatives from every NHL team. In the central lobby, whose windows overlook the four ice rinks, the tables are packed. One grizzled group of men in hunting caps and Green Bay Packers hats are members of some sort of fraternal order called the Buffalo Club. Their anoraks, embroidered with a large buffalo on the back, read, "A Breed Apart: Where cowards won't go and the weak die along the way."
The Miami players seem awestruck. "We saw a scout for the New York Rangers in the bathroom," says Rocket.
"And one for the Blackhawks," says another player.
Watching the game, they are quiet. It's difficult to believe that the players on the ice are even the same age as the Miami guys. The differences are clear: fewer goals, faster pace, the checking more efficiently incapacitating. The USHL game is clean the players in constant motion around the puck, always alert for opportunity.
The Toros watch quietly, deciding to leave after the second period to visit the Mall of America. "I'm freezing," says Rocket, shivering in a thin white sweater, as they stand up to go.
The SEJHL wins its game against the CHA All-Stars the next day, and the Toros leave the ice rink immediately afterward to catch a 3:00 p.m. flight back to Fort Lauderdale. No more scouts approach them, but it doesn't matter. One chance to play college hockey is all they want.
The Junior Jamboree will continue for the rest of the day. Windows surrounding the atrium reveal skaters slamming each other against the boards and passing to their teammates. In a small drama framed by one window, a player in a green jersey suddenly clocks another in the face with his stick. As the injured player skates off, a trail of blood marks his path off the ice. Play resumes, the teams unceremoniously skating over the frozen, bright red blood.
Joe Timpone was unable to abandon his hockey program duties at Kendall Ice Arena to attend the showcase in Minnesota. Although pleased with the results, he had some misgivings about the goals of the SEJHL team coach, who did not give the Miami players much ice time. "They got a lot out of it," Timpone says. "They proved to themselves that their level of play is as good as anybody else out there, even though they didn't have impacts in the game itself because the coach didn't give them the opportunity to show what they can do." But he points out that the Miami players were the only ones on the team to have been approached by a college, something he is more proud of anyway. "Junior Hockey isn't about winning or losing," he says. "It's about moving kids on to college."
Richie Smith might attend Robert Morris for the scholarship. Victor Cobian, however, has another year of Junior Hockey eligibility ahead of him, and Timpone thinks that with dedication, the young man could potentially make the cut for a Level A Junior Team. The coach has already arranged such a tryout for Rocket Kokas, whom Timpone believes might have the potential to one day play NCAA Division 3 or even Division 1. What's more, the SEJHL will see an upgrade next year, from Tier II Level C to Level B. "That's the same level as the Minnesota Junior Hockey League!" Timpone says giddily. For him, beating the cold states at their own sport is only a question of dedication.