It all started as an idea between two dads who just wanted the best for their hockey-playing sons: What if we started our own hockey team at Land O’ Lakes High School?
After long months of conversations, fundraising and coordination, Joshua Whitman and Bill O’ Connor’s theoretical question became a reality.
This coming fall, the Land O’ Lakes High School hockey club will begin its first season in the Lightning High School Hockey League, or the LHSHL.
The Gators becomes the 19th school to join the league. The league is operated by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and features varsity level programs throughout Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Hockey is not a sanctioned sport by the Florida High School Athletic Association, the official governing body for interscholastic athletics in Florida.
And, since most high schools don’t have enough players to field a team, the LHSHL has what’s called catchments, where it combines players usually from three or four different high schools to form a team.
Previously, Land O’ Lakes students would be zoned to play for the Mitchell Mustangs hockey team, which also includes players from Mitchell and Sunlake high schools.
With their sons, who play travel league hockey together, set to be high school freshmen next year, Whitman and O’Connor didn’t want them to get lost on an already overpopulated Mitchell roster.
They also wanted them, and others, to get a true high school athletic experience — able to solely represent the Gators with their fellow Land O’ Lakes classmates.
O’ Connor put it this way: “It’s fun because we all live in the same community and we all see each other at school. It’s like playing on the high school football team, with all the people from the same area. That’s what’s cool about it. You can tell the enthusiasm from the kids.”
The parents got the blessing of the LHSHL to start a team and enlisted the help of USA Hockey to determine if Land O’ Lakes had enough players to make it all work.
They also canvassed social media to gauge interest from Land O’ Lakes families.
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I was so surprised how enthusiastic everybody was and how supportive everyone was. That was the key. That’s what I think was good,” O’ Connor said.
Once it was confirmed their community had the hard numbers to fill a club roster, the dads created a nonprofit foundation, Central Pasco Youth Hockey Foundation Inc., to help with fundraising and sponsorships efforts, and oversee the general operation of the team.
They also went about filling a coaching staff, which is now led by Bill Karas, a Minnesota native who brings more than 50 years of coaching and scouting experience to the club.
The entire endeavor took all of about six months.
“We just kept moving forward, and it just kind of snowballed,” Whitman said. “Looking back now, it did fly by. It was good we started early and got things done as fast as possible.”
Unlike most LHSHL teams, the Gators will have what’s called a “pure” team, with its entire roster made up of players who attend Land O’ Lakes High or are home-schooled and live within school boundaries.
It undoubtedly adds a school spirit factor to the team.
The hockey club raised about $1,800 selling Gators hockey sweatshirts alone, Whitman said, to help offset equipment and registration costs.
“It’s created quite a buzz at the school,” said Whitman. “One of the things that we want to try to do is kind of change the culture about high school hockey here in Florida, because it kind of is a secondary thought for most kids.”
The Gators hockey club actually began play this spring in a league operated by local rinks that’s independent of the LHSHL. The spring league is designed as a prelude to the fall season for current eighth-graders through high school juniors.
The spring roster has 28 players. That includes three high school juniors, a sophomore and a freshman, 15 eighth graders, and 10 seventh graders on the practice squad.
The club’s first-ever game was on April 19, when it faced Wiregrass Ranch High at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel.
It was a memorable game for all, including the Gators head coach, who has seen just about everything in his five decade-long hockey career.
“First game here, we probably had 200 people. It was incredible. You don’t see that at a Minnesota high school game,” Karas said. “I was very impressed with the support that we’re getting from the Land O’ Lakes community, and I’m just glad to be part of it.”
The hockey dads and coaches aren’t the only ones excited about the Land O’ Lakes hockey venture. Players are, too, of course.
Leftwing Ian Ravens is one of the roster’s older, more experienced players, as a 16-year-old junior.
After playing in recreation leagues for many years, Ravens is glad to finally represent his high school in hockey gear.
“It’s a big thing. I’m looking forward to our senior nights, stuff like that, things that I wouldn’t be able to do playing for Mitchell or another team,” said Ravens.
“I think we’re going to get a lot of recognition in the school. We have a lot of fans,” he added.
Meantime, Ravens is confident about the team’s prospects in the LHSHL regular season, which runs roughly from September through February.
Though the fall roster will mostly be composed of incoming freshman, the rising senior feels the upstart team can hold its own. In the spring league, the Gators have won a few games and remained competitive in others.
“I think that we’re going to go in strong, which we have to,” said Ravens, who’s been playing recreational hockey for about 11 years. “We’re going to be playing a lot of different teams, not just the teams that we’re playing now (in the spring). We’ve got to be more physical, which I definitely see in everyone. I see that we have a lot of potential. I think we’re going to go far with it.”
Published May 29, 2019