In the Lakewood Ranch Manatees' first two games in the National Ball Hockey League, the team suffered back-to-back losses, a 7-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Thunder and an 8-1 loss to the Orlando Mutiny.
The Manatees, made up of players from the Manatee Ball Hockey League, which hosts games at Lakewood Ranch Park, had yet to come together as a team, according to defenseman and goaltender Bradley Gustafson.
Gustafson said some Manatee players had wanted to start an NBHL team since it began in 2021, but until 2023, the league didn't have the numbers — or the talent — to make it reality.
The NBHL, which also began in 2021, is rapidly growing and considered to be the top ball hockey league in the country. The league has three tiers, with the top tier containing players from the USA Ball Hockey national team among its ranks. The Manatees play in the Florida division of the second tier league; a step down from the top tier, but still quite competitive, Gustafson said. The NBHL is not a paid league, and any group can create a team if they wish, but since its inception it has become the proving grounds of the sport. When it started in 2021, the league had 76 teams across 15 states, and in 2023, it has 165 teams across 30 states and Canada.
The Lakewood Ranch team decided to form because, like the NBHL itself, there was an explosion of interest in the Manatee league over the last 18 months. In December 2021, the league had approximately 40 members, and the league currently has 156 members, getting close to its maximum capacity of 192 players for a given season. Some of those members were talented enough that Gustafson and other veteran players decided to try their hand at the NBHL and see how good they actually were.
It wasn't a huge surprise that the Lakewood Ranch team lost its first two games in the NBHL. It wasn't only a talent-level adjustment that caused the Manatees' slow start, but a rink adjustment.
At Lakewood Ranch Park, the Manatee Ball Hockey League holds games on a 120-by-60-foot rink, which is smaller than average. In the NBHL, Lakewood Ranch is playing on 180-by-90-foot rinks. Gustafson said the larger space opens up the game, giving players more time to think and execute plays, but it also creates challenges, like creating new angles off the boards and requiring precise accuracy on long passes down the field of play. It is also played five-on-five, while the Manatee league plays four-on-four.
After those first two games, the Manatees began to adjust to the rink and pace of the game, and the players' speed became an advantage. In the team's third game, against the Daytona Ducks, the Manatees pulled out a 5-2 win.
"That's when we started to click," Gustafson said.
The team has won three of its last five games and how has an overall 3-4 record. Gustafson said they want to get better in the inaugural season.
The team plays its NBHL games in Fort Myers at the Fort Myers Skatium, with three to four games being played in a single day to cut down on travel.
The Florida division features a 10-game regular season plus a postseason tournament to crown a champion. If the Manatees were to win that tournament, they would earn an invitation to the Mylec Cup, a tournament between all the national division winners in their given tiers, held Sept. 22-24 in Buffalo, New York.
As the sport of ball hockey grows, so do the ambitions of the people who love it. It is Gustafson's dream to one day hold a similar tournament to the Mylec Cup in Lakewood Ranch — on a full-sized rink.
"I want it more than anything in entire the world," Gustafson said. "One of the reasons why we're about to hit capacity (in the Manatee league) is that we play on a smaller rink and we don't have lights. We also don't have a cover, so we can't really play in the summer (because of the heat). The goal is to be able to play year-round and at night, so we can do more things."
Those things include weeknight clinics and a more recreational league that plays during the week, while a competitive league plays on Sundays.
Those changes may be years away. For now, Gustafson and the league's other players are having fun getting experience against the best the sport of ball hockey has to offer. And the more it grows, the more it makes things like rink improvements a viable option. But you don't have to be a pro player to try your hand at the sport.
"The Manatee league is a great place to start playing," Gustafson said. "We have a healthy mix of skill levels. I think it's enjoyable for everybody."
For more information on the Manatee Ball Hockey League, visit MBHL.org. For more information on the National Ball Hockey league, visit TheNBHL.com.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.