The National Hockey League’s (NHL) next generation of talent skated into Pasco County — showing puck fans and pro scouts their skills in shot-making, blocking, toughness and teamwork.
AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel was the site of the 2021 NHL Prospect Showcase, which ran from Sept. 18 through Sept. 21.
Hosted by the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the event also welcomed prospect teams from the Carolina Hurricanes, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers.
All four teams played each other once over the four-day showcase, at 3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd.
Any skater or goaltender in each of the four organizations on an entry-level contract (or less), provided they are 24 years old or younger and have less than 20 games of NHL experience, was eligible to participate in the showcase.
Contests were open to the public and streamed live on TampaBayLightning.com.
The competition rotates between the cities of the four franchises each year.
With it being the Lightning’s turn to coordinate the event, the Wesley Chapel-based facility provided an ideal locale.
The 150,000-square-foot complex — the largest ice sports facility in the southeastern United States — is known for having four full-sized ice rinks and a mini-rink housed under one roof.
Aside from sheets of ice, the facility was designed to meet various NHL specifications, all the way down to specific railings and glass around the boards.
The facility also features an on-site sports medicine clinic with an evaluation and treatment room; a fully equipped fitness center with over 2,000 square feet of space; and a 90-yard indoor track turf.
Those features, plus the accessibility to on-site hotels and restaurants, as well as nearby Saddlebrook Resort, were other selling factors for the Lightning and other franchises.
“The amenities, that’s really what did it for them,” Center Ice owner Gordie Zimmermann said, noting many Lightning executives have family members who are members of the facility. “They’ve utilized every aspect of this building, basically.”
Zimmermann acknowledged the showcase ranks as one of the most prominent events to be held at the four-year-old facility — ranking up there with the 2017 Four Nations Cup that featured the USA women’s hockey team (as well as Canada, Sweden and Finland) in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Each prospect team featured about three of four players who’ll likely see time in the NHL this year, Zimmermann said, which added to the event’s allure.
Zimmermann spotlighted 20-year-old Panthers goalie Spencer Knight — who shined in this past year’s NHL playoffs — as one of many examples.
Knight last year became the first goaltender to ever have played both in the Stanley Cup playoffs and NCAA (at Boston College) in the same season.
He also was the second-youngest goaltender in NHL history to win his Stanley Cup playoffs debut, trailing only Don Beupre, who did so at 19 years old in 1981.
“When young guys like this, and prospects and draft picks and free agents are vying for a spot, they’re obviously working their butts off out there, and so it’s very competitive,” said Zimmermann. “It’s almost NHL-quality play, obviously, some of these guys have already played a little bit in the NHL.”
Meanwhile, Lightning fans received a glimpse of the franchise’s wave of younger talent over the course of the four-day competition.
And that future looks quite bright.
The Lightning’s prospect squad finished the tournament as the only team with a perfect 3-0 record. They never trailed in any of their three tournament wins against the Hurricanes, Panthers and Predators.
The Lightning’s 24-man prospect roster mostly featured players from northern states in the U.S. and hockey-obsessed countries including Canada, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and Nova Scotia.
But, there was one Tampa Bay area native as part of the squad — Clearwater’s Avery Winslow.
The 19-year-old defenseman said at a media session it was “a dream come true” to be invited to the prospect camp of the team he cheered while growing up.
Winslow enjoyed some on-ice heroics, too, scoring a first goal 36 seconds into a 6-5 shootout victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 19. “It was definitely a very exciting moment for me,” he said.
Winslow has spent the past couple seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, one of three major junior ice hockey leagues that constitute the Canadian Hockey League.
He’s a prime example of what the Lightning’s presence and success has meant for the growth of the sport throughout the Tampa Bay area.
“It’s really cool to see that the game of hockey has grown so much with the Lightning winning the (Stanley) Cup the last two years,” Winslow said. “You can really start to see the growth of hockey and all the younger people starting to follow along and actually be fans of the sport and not just show up to the games, so it’s definitely cool to see.”
The event appeared be a hit among the arena teeming with hockey fans over the course of the event.
Trinity resident Roger Ennis showed up to the showcase’s final game on Sept. 21, where the Lightning defeated the Panthers in a high-scoring affair, 8-5.
It marked the first time Ennis visited the Wesley Chapel-based facility.
The Lightning fan was pleased with the intimate seating arrangements to get an up-close look at the action on ice.
He also came away impressed by Lightning prospects Winslow and Quebec’s Gabriel Fortier, a second-round draft pick by the Lightning in 2018.
“It’s just great to see the young guys at it, all looking to move on,” Ennis said. “It’s amazing to be able to come here, and make a day of it and get that close.”
Note: Check out our video that includes an interview with Gordie Zimmermann, owner/CEO of AdventHealth Center Ice, along with footage of the prospects and game highlights, at https://www.facebook.com/LakerLutzNews/videos/452615092753043.
Published September 29, 2021