Ice hockey is not a sport sanctioned by either the Florida High School Athletic Association or the Sunshine State Athletic Conference.
A lack of rinks and a small, though growing, number of youth hockey players means the sport hasn't been adopted by state high school organizations.
According to USA Hockey data, there were approximately 9,000 Florida hockey players aged 18 and under registered with the organization in the 2022-2023 year. In 2002-2003, there were approximately 5,000 youth players in the state.
Certain regions of Florida, like Manatee County, have more players in others, thanks in part to the success of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, which won the Stanley Cup in 2004, 2020, and 2021, and reached the Finals in 2015 and 2022.
That generated lots of interest and is why a regional league can exist on the Gulf Coast. Called the Lightning High School Hockey League, or the LHSHL, it is made up of 20 teams, most of them representing a single high school. But in some cases, an interested high school will not have enough players to fill out an entire roster, so two high schools will band together to create a new team.
The Manatee Admirals are one such team, combining players from Lakewood Ranch and Parrish Community high schools. In 2023, the combination has worked. The Admirals, who play home games at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, are 12-2-0 (24 points) as of Nov. 25, leading the Lecavalier Division by four points over Palmetto High (9-4-2, 20 points). Lakewood Ranch senior Nicholas Kelly leads the Admirals with 35 points (15 goals, 20 assists), while Parrish Community junior Weston Hermann is second with 26 points (15 goals, 11 assists).
The majority of players in the LHSHL, including Kelly and Hermann, also play travel hockey, but the Admirals — who are celebrating their 10th season as a LHSHL club— give players a chance to experience something akin to traditional high school sports, where teammates get to see each other and talk about their games in between classes.
"We're all good friends off the ice," Kelly said. "We stay connected. We're like a family. That's helping us on the ice. Because we're so connected, we're able to move the puck well and find shots where we could not before. That's giving us more opportunities to score."
Hermann said his favorite memories from the Admirals are not ones people would typically expect, like winning big games. Instead, Hermann's favorite times have been participating in the traditional hockey ecosystem, where younger players complete tasks for older players as a sign of respect. Hermann said that as a freshman, he enjoyed doing things like taping up senior Manatee players' sticks, because it made it feel like he was part of a real team.
"That's something that I probably won't ever get to do again," Hermann said. "It carries on the tradition. And next year, I'll be a senior and on the other side of it."
Kelly and Hermann like being on the ice, too. Both players said the pace of play in the LHSHL feels a tick slower than their respective travel leagues, which they view as a positive. It allows them to see more of the ice on rushes and think about what to do next, as opposed to simply reacting.
Kelly said being a part of the Admirals has helped him learn how to be a leader. He said he is naturally quiet, but has developed the confidence to speak up when the team needs a spark. In other cases, he said, he lets his play do the talking.
"I want to show them the right way to do things," Kelly said. "I feel like I can teach that to others. But I've also learned how to bring others up if they're feeling down."
For a sport that isn't offered through traditional high school avenues, the Manatee Admirals hockey club provides its players with a chance to experience the same things football and basketball players experience in school sports, such as personal growth and leadership opportunities.
Winning doesn't hurt, either.
"It's a special group," Hermann said. "I don't get to see some of these guys a lot. This team helps keep those friendships going."