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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.

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Emily Witt
Contact: Emily Witt