It’s a sea of green. And gold.
It’s the fans for the University of South Florida (USF) Hockey team, as the team takes the ice at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel,
The fans, decked out in the school colors, are coming out in force to support the Bulls, a club team that plays a full season of games and competes in the College Hockey South Conference, and for the Cup, at the season’s end.
“We have the best fans in the league, by far,” said Alden Spratt, a freshman forward, who is majoring in Political Science.
“We get the best crowds, and it’s a lot more fun than anything I’ve played in up North,” added freshman forward Charlie Rongo, who hails from New Jersey.
“We love playing in front of a packed crowd,” agreed junior forward Zach Parker, a Wesley Chapel native, “and all we want to do is put on a show for them.”
So far, on Fridays and Saturday evenings, the Bulls (8-5-1) have been putting on a hockey show. A show that anyone — student or just hockey fan — can attend for free.
It was evident during a recent game that fans are coming out in force for the Bulls.
They played in front of a sold-out crowd against rival Central Florida on Nov. 5. Before the game, longtime USF women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez dropped the ceremonial puck.
“It’s a different type of hockey than what we’re used to — a fun and electric atmosphere,” Spratt, a Philadelphia native, said. “Up North, you play hockey, you try to get on a college team or go to the NHL (National Hockey League). It’s not as fun as this.”
The USF Hockey Team was founded in 1987 by two students — Eric Mattson and Chip McCarthy — who loved and missed hockey while attending USF, so they began looking into forming a hockey club. The team’s first season began in 1989, when the Bulls went 8-3.
Since then, USF has appeared in 11 postseasons and has seen its fan base grow, which is especially impressive since Florida is always considered a “non-hockey state.”
“I blame the Tampa Bay Lightning for winning so much,” Rongo said, jokingly. “They made hockey fans out of everyone. I walk around campus, and everyone is wearing a hockey cap or sweatshirt, and I think our fans love seeing hockey, especially as a fun, college thing to do.
“I mean, we got a guy who brings a cone to every game and uses it as a megaphone!”
“Hockey is obviously a big (sport) up North,” Spratt added. “I came down here and expected (the big sport) to be baseball and football, and it is, to an extent, but the atmosphere here around hockey was not something I really expected.”
For Parker, the love of hockey in Florida is nothing new.
“I live five minutes from the rink,” said the 2017 Wiregrass Ranch graduate, who also works at Center Ice. “It would have been great to have it, like, 10 years ago, but people around here have loved hockey for a long time.
“I love Tampa, I love hockey, and it’s great to be able to stay home and do what I love.”
Rango loves playing hockey in Florida, too.
“You know, I played in Canada,” he said, “and there, I step outside, I’m frozen. Down here, I play and then I step outside and I’m headed to the beach (laughs).”
While the crowds are lively and the games are exciting, in the end, the players know that they are not destined for the NHL spotlight. This is a recreational activity for them, a way to keep playing the sport they love, get some exercise and, as always, be hit with a shot of adrenaline playing in front of a raucous crowd.
“For me,” Parker said, introspectively, “yeah, this is kind of it. I will finish out my senior year and go onto a career. Of course, I’ll always love hockey or try to find a way to play, but we play here, for USF, for the club, because we love it.
“We play for the love of the game.”
When: Friday and Saturday evenings
Where: AdventHealth Center Ice, 3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd., Wesley Chapel
Cost: Admission to games is free
Details: The University of South Florida (USF) Hockey Club has been playing since 1987 and competes in the College Hockey South Conference, which features several other teams, such as Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida and the University of Tampa. The season concludes with a three-day conference championship tournament. The top eight teams from that advance to the 2023 CHS Tournament, held in West Chester, Pennsylvania in March.
Next game: Dec. 3 against the University of Tampa, 7 p.m.
Published November 16, 2022