With the help of The Lightning Foundation, Manatee County adds another sweet amenity to Lakewood Ranch’s outdoor recreation bag in the form of an in-line hockey rink.
Hockey might not seem like an obvious sport of choice for hot, sunny Florida, but in the past five years, The Lightning Foundation has taken over regional high school ice hockey programming and grown it to 17 teams playing in junior varsity leagues with 600 kids in the program.
That burgeoning interest led to the next logical step: creating more opportunities where even the youngest players can take a shot at hockey. Many Lightning fans were already taking their love of the sport to the street with pick-up roller hockey games, but street play definitely comes with limitations.
"We recognize that not everyone who plays street or ball hockey is going to gravitate to the ice. This is about getting people playing.”
— Jay Feaster, VP of community hockey development from the Tampa Sports & Entertainment Division
With a grant from the Industry Growth Fund and funding by the National Hockey League Players Association, The Lightning Foundation launched a program to build 10 local 60-by-120-foot outdoor roller hockey rinks to help get kids — and others — to play.
The program’s first rink opened in August at Lakewood Ranch Park, next to Lakewood Ranch High School. The second rink opened in October in Oldsmar.
This was great news for Summerfield resident Jeremy Gunter, 30, who has followed the Lightning for five years and geared himself up with skates, sticks and balls to learn the game.
“When this rink opened up, it was a great way to get outside and have some fun,” Gunter says. “I’ve been going to the rink by myself and practicing, and I’ve met a few people. We’ve been putting together a few pick-up games.”
That’s exactly what Jay Feaster, the vice president of community hockey development from the Tampa Sports & Entertainment Division, had in mind.
“Over the last five years, as a part of our ‘Build the Thunder’ program, we’ve given 100,000 Lightning-logo sticks and balls to 500 local schools in the surrounding five counties,” Feaster says. “From our perspective, we want to get sticks and balls into kids’ hands and get them playing. That’s our goal.”
The “Build the Thunder 2.0” and “Connect the Thunder” initiatives will include the 10 rinks as well as league programming at each of them and at clinics to continue growing interest and perhaps lead to professional player recruitment.
“We recognize that not everyone who plays street or ball hockey is going to gravitate to the ice,” Feaster says. “This is about getting people playing.”
Plans for the Lakewood Ranch rink started more than two years ago. The initial concept was that Schroeder-Manatee Ranch would donate land at the Premier Sports Campus for the rink. Yet things changed when SMR and Manatee Parks started considering how the rink activity might conflict with other sports league timing, and the logistics got challenging, says Charlie Hunsicker, the director of Manatee Parks & Natural Resources.
“We felt it wouldn’t be conducive to have a hockey program on the same weekends as soccer games,” Hunsicker says. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we put the skate park in a park that’s already fully mature?’ And the Lightning said, ‘You’re right.’ Plus, placement near the high school made good sense with the students’ growing interest and established teams.”
That change in plans didn’t stop SMR from keeping its commitment to help build hockey support. When Manatee Parks paid $79,000 to pour the concrete slab for the rink and conduct safety testing, SMR reimbursed the county. The Lightning Foundation invested another $110,000 to complete the rink with side boards and more equipment for upcoming leagues.
“Sports, particularly for our youth, have always been of utmost importance in planning for and building Lakewood Ranch as a community,” says Lisa Barnott, SMR’s director of marketing and communications. SMR is also the residential real estate development partner of the Lightning and Amalie Arena, which is geared at drawing synergy between Tampa Bay residents and opportunities in Lakewood Ranch.
“At the county, we want to express our gratitude to SMR for establishing a contact like this … and holding to their commitment,” Hunsicker says.
Currently, the rink is open to all residents, “like a swing set at the park,” Hunsicker says.