ELLENTON — Fourteen years ago, Zack Cantrell went to his first hockey game.
Although he was just 2 years old at the time, the Braden River High sophomore knows it was a defining moment in his life. Cantrell can’t recall the game itself, but he does remember bugging his parents constantly until they got him his first pair of skates.
One year later, he started playing the sport — and hasn’t stopped since. For the past year, Cantrell has been playing hockey for the Manatee County high school hockey team and the Tampa Bay Bolts junior team.
After moving from Indiana where he played varsity hockey, Cantrell, who initially didn’t even know there were hockey teams in the area, had to adjust to playing hockey in Florida.
“It was different; it’s a whole different atmosphere down here,” Cantrell said. “It’s actually pretty good down here, though. I’ve been looked at a lot more down here, and the only difference is the type of play, players and coaching.”
But the transition appears to have appealed to the defender, who helped lead Manatee County to a 20-1-1 record this season. As a result, the team earned the top seed in the Central Combined Division and was selected to compete in the Lightning Cup Feb. 28 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
This is the first year the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted the Lightning Cup with the hopes of promoting high school and youth hockey in the area.
“I’m looking forward to just being at the Tampa Bay Lightning arena,” Cantrell said before the game. “There won’t be as many fans, but it’s definitely going to be great to have the chance to play up there.”
Manatee County defeated East Lake, the top seed in the Western Division, 6-4 with Paul Lochner earning MVP honors. The team will return to action in the Central Division Playoffs March 5-6 in Brandon with the top four teams playing for the Division Championship.
After earning the top seed in the division, Manatee County also earned an automatic berth in the SAHOF State Combined High School Championship March 19-21 in Oldsmar.
“A state title would be nice, since this is my last year,” Lakewood Ranch senior Joe Ramey said. “I just want to finish out in a good way and go out with a bang.”
Last season, the team finished second in the state in the combined division, coming out of the Western Division of the Lightning Conference. But this season, the team switched to the Central Division, comprising of 11 teams, as a way to be more economically feasible.
The Manatee team was founded last year by coach Phil Atkinson, who has been associated with the sport for the past 49 years, as a way to promote and encourage high school hockey in Florida. The team, an affiliate of the Manatee County Hockey Club, comprises 24 players from six schools, including Braden River, Lakewood, Manatee, Southeast, Bradenton Prep and Palmetto.
“They’re a great group of guys,” Atkinson said. “They’re a little wiry in the locker room at times, but there’s a lot of talent on this team. If they learn to distribute their talent and share it then they’ll be a much wiser team.”
The team practices once a week out of the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex and competes every Friday night from September through February. Eventually, Atkinson said he would like to add another team in the future and eventually create a pure team, with all of the 13 required players coming from one high school.
“Our goal for high school is to make another team out of Manatee in the future,” Atkinson said. “Hopefully, we can continue to get kids playing hockey, so that every school has it’s own team. That’s our ultimate goal down the road.”
For more information on the Manatee County high school hockey team, visit www.manateecountyhockeyclub.com.
Contact Jen Blanco at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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