Jay Feaster’s mission on growing Florida hockey a noble challenge

Clay Witt

Brandon native and goaltender Clay Witt represents the first wave of serious NHL prospects from Florida. Photo by Charles Schelle

Inside the Ellenton Ice & Sports Complex Monday morning, Jay Feaster took the reigns of his new role as executive director of community hockey development for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As players ran through some dry land drills, Feaster spoke to Fox Tampa Bay’s Charley Belcher about the need to grow the game in the Sunshine State at the grassroots level:

“Our goal is we want to get more children, more young people and more adults for that matter participating in this great sport.”

Feaster pointed to using hockey to get into the schools as lessons for physics and getting current Lightning players out in the community for these Lightning Made camps and other activities to supplement the Lightning alumni who participate, much like Jassen Cullimore did Monday at the camp.

It’s also why Martin St. Louis left. His kid outgrew the hockey here and needed better competition, so St. Louis couldn’t live with his kid being sent across the country playing games he would miss.

Feaster told Joe Smith on Tuesday that it bothered St. Louis for years:

Feaster said he had dinner with St. Louis and Lightning staff members in Calgary in 2008 and the captain made it clear back then he didn’t like missing his son’s hockey games as they traveled all over.

“It’s a difficult thing,” Feaster said. “Because I appreciate the lifestyle choice. I just think it’s tough when you handcuff your GM, only one place I want to go and I want to do it now as opposed to, ‘Hey, let’s see how far this run can go? I’m the captain of the team.’ And from that perspective, if that’s something that you had been thinking about, if you were thinking, ‘I’m still (upset) at 2010 and I better get picked this time (for Team Canada), and I have issues with the kids and youth hockey, maybe you should say, before they pick a captain, ‘I’m cool with wearing an ‘A.’ I think it’s tough when it’s your captain.”

The interview could use a bit of clarification because what this reads as is that Jeff Vinik never wants to lose another player again because the youth hockey isn’t/wasn’t good enough in Tampa and became well documented in media reports in New York City, Canada and here in Tampa Bay. If you’re going to sell a team on a family atmosphere, well, there are some things you have to expect children of hockey players to be participating in.

Maybe that wasn’t Vinik’s motivation, but it sure seems like it at a first passing. And you know what? I’m totally fine with that if it was part of his motivation to start these programs.

It will take Florida a generation for this to really work. Unless you’re in the 3 M’s–Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts–kids will reach a certain age earlier than what you think where they’re going to have to move with a billet family to be on a highly competitive team.

I lived in the other M, Maryland, where Washington Capitals players would often have their kids play in youth leagues. Michael Nylander’s kids was one of them, but they hit a certain age and they need more ice and better competition. The Washington Capitals have been in Maryland from 1974 to 1997 until moving to D.C. and moving its practice rink from the aging Piney Orchard in Olney, Md., to the spiffy new Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, Va.

Even 15 years ago, the quality of play wasn’t there at all rinks, even for higher levels for kids who played on the Little Capitals as a Tier I team. A new team, the Junior Nationals, tried to have a go of it in Arlington but moved to Vermont for the Tier III Jr. A team.

I remember after one tournament, pretty much everyone on our lowly Midget B team received an invite letter from a scout to a tryout camp. It was partly flattering and cool, but many of our families really didn’t know what to do with the information or who to trust based on these letters and where they came from. And we barely had the money to play–especially my family. I feel sick when I realize how my mom cashed in so many savings bonds and sacrificed so much to just pay for me to play low-level travel hockey only for me to just stop before my senior year of high school because I wanted to have that second trip to DisneyWorld through marching band.

Yeah, I was all about short-sightedness as a teen, and even into my twenties.

Kids who had either the superb talent or money had better coaching even just four to five years younger than myself, initially getting cracks on D-III teams in college.  I was surprised to learn last year that a kid from my very small hometown of Clear Spring, Md., Sean Kreps, up and moved to play for the Portland Junior Pirates U-18 team in Maine.

Now, the rest of the Maryland is routinely sending kids into higher levels of play and some to college and as always, few make it to be even considered a NHL prospect. Maryland is not really that much further ahead of Florida if at all, and that pains me to say that. And both states have about the same number of ice rinks, too, only with Maryland being boosted by some seasonal outdoor ice rinks.

I attribute part of that to the Capitals being more committed to community partnerships and sponsoring of youth hockey programs and grants throughout Maryland, D.C. and Virginia in addition to the team’s success skyrocketing with Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin and company. When I go back to visit my one-sheet rink in Hagerstown, I notice that a lot more people play and during hockey season, I see more Capitals gear around the city than I do the Redskins and Ravens.

The Lightning are in a perfect spot to promote youth and adult hockey participation with a team on the upswing back into the playoffs, filled with young players.

The true success in the Sunshine State (and Maryland for that matter) will be getting multiple players from Florida drafted and be active in the NHL who do not have any bloodlines to former NHLers. Much like several Canadian NHL players, the parents of Florida hockey players can come from other countries.  It would be ultra rare to see a Florida Cracker (look it up, it’s actually not racist. They’re cowboys) ever make the NHL.

You have cases where NHLers have a stop-over in a city, like Dave Gagner with the Panthers, and his son Sam Gagner, played for the Coral Springs Panthers–doing a double dose on Canadianness and NHLednes.

It’s a little nuts, but despite the struggles of the Florida Panthers for a good 10 years, South Florida is just as along, or maybe behind, of Tampa Bay in producing NHL prospects, too. It’s an extremely small sample size, though.

Shayne Gostisbehere considers himself a Florida boy, born in Margate, situated between Coral Springs and Pompano Beach. Though his grandfather is a man who’s named Denis Brodeur. No, he’s not THAT Denis Brodeur, the late photographer who gave life to Martin Brodeur. But the guy is still from Montreal.

Gostisbehere (IIHF says it’s pronounced GHOST-ISS-BEAR) could be the kid that makes Floridians take notice and maybe NHL scouts take notice of Florida more. It’s a shame that he’ll be part of the Philadelphia Flyers organization, but he’s going to be a lock one day. After winning the NCAA championship with Union College this spring, he signed an entry-level deal with the Flyers, setting him up for some time with the Phantoms this year after getting in two games with the AHL club after college.

He discussed his Florida roots with a brand new magazine dedicated to Florida hockey called 80 Degrees Hockey Magazine:

“I was lucky to have a mentor type coach that always told me not to forget where I came from–not to feel embarrassed if at any time people question you being a hockey player from Florida,” Gotisbehere told the magazine. “My mom always tells me not to hesitate in interviews to talk about my Florida roots. I will always be a Florida boy. I always pack a swimsuit wherever I go.” 

Before Shayne there was Blake. Blake Geoffrien was born in Plantation and played for the Nashville Predators and Montreal Canadiens before his career was ended by a brutal hit while playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs. With Blake, you can easily see he had the NHL family–Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrien was his grandfather and Howie Morenz was his great-grandfather.

This time of year Floridian hockey fans are teased as a hometown player or at least one from the Sunshine State gets invited to a rookie development camp. These camps rarely see an invitee or even an early-stage prospect be brought back for rookie training camp in September. Cody Bradley was invited in 2012, but again, he is the son of former Bolts captain Brian Bradley. You’re more apt to see more Floridians get a crack at the ECHL rosters in Orlando and Estero.

The Bolts invited Brandon native and goaltender Clay Witt, who looked amazing during the scrimmages but had a tough time with some of the drills coach Frantz Jean put the pros through, while in South Florida, the Panthers have two local prospects with Colin Suellentrop of Plantation and Cody Payne of Weston.

Suellentrop played for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals, finishing up his junior career and went unsigned by the Philadelphia Flyers after Philly drafted him in the fourth round in 2011. Suellentrop played on an Oshawa team that featured top NHL prospects Michael Dal Colle and Scott Laughton, so it wasn’t as if he was a throw-in.

Payne is a Boston Bruins draft pick from fifth round in 2012 and finished up his junior career with the Saginaw Spirit after time with the Plymouth Whalers and Oshawa Generals.

Ah yes, Payne isn’t 100 percent Floridian or American for that matter. He was born in London–England, not Ontario. His dad is a Toronto Maple Leafs fan to boot, he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, something that isn’t all that shocking for hockey fans with English roots.

But the kid had to start playing somewhere, and it was in Florida on rollerblades nonetheless.

One prospect to watch is Nick Pastujov and his brother Michael, who both were born in Bradenton and played in Oldsmar before the family moved to Michigan so they could play competitive hockey on the HoneyBaked Hams (owned by Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, who also owns Germain Arena and the Everblades).

Nick is on the prestigious USA Hockey National Team Development Program U-17 team. He’s got some Russian roots to help him along the way, too, according to a 2013 story by Ken Campbell of The Hockey News:

Pastujov, who is in his second season playing in the Honeybaked organization, turns 15 in late January and will likely have to decide between major junior hockey and USA Hockey’s under-17 program after next season. His father, George, left Russia when he was 28 and settled in Florida, where Pastujov played all his minor hockey before realizing he had to come north to expose himself to better competition.

“Yeah, there are decisions that need to be made,” he said. “But there will be time for those. Meanwhile, I just dream of making it to the NHL like everyone else does.”

A lot of things have to go right for these kids to make it. Work ethic, talent, a clear passion and focus to recognize they can be a pro athlete, connections/exposure and money to keep paying to play. But before they get to that point, they need to know the game.

It has to start somewhere and hopefully the Lightning’s new program can inspire a few kids to be more than the thunder.

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