Sometimes Tampa Bay Lighting fans forget that Orlando is very much part of the team’s market where fellow fans will make the trek.
Hockey families in Central Florida will soon have their own new rink and while the Tampa Bay Lightning helped cultivate a hockey market there, it’s the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears owners to thank for building the newest rink.
The team confirmed with the Orlando Sentinel that it will break ground in February on a 125,000-square-foot, two-sheet rink on East Crown Point Road in Winter Garden, near State Road 429.
(Pardon my skepticism, but even if this project is given a rapid response designation by the city of Winter Garden, I don’t see how it will be administratively approved in under 60 days from the point of plan submission in the last week of December to shovels digging dirt sometime in February. A February groundbreaking would make the rink ready in time for fall leagues in 2016 but I would say March or even April would have a greater chance of seeing dirt move.)
The City Beautiful has long had history with minor league hockey and the ECHL reincarnation of the Solar Bears brought that momentum back to Central Florida. In its absence, the Lightning continued to grow the market and now Orlando suburb Winter Garden will benefit.
On a good day, fans around a bulk of Orlando can make it to Amalie Arena in 80 minutes. The team probably gets more Central Florida residents at games during the weekends though for an easier trip. During a Rangers-Lightning game in November, I sat beside a family who regularly make it down to Lightning games from Daytona Beach—a two-hour drive when Interstate 4 cooperates.
That drive for a game is very much doable if you have the right schedule during the week despite what it looks like on a map. From Hagerstown, Md., to the Verizon Center in Washington, that was a 90-minute drive for me…if rush hour disappeared on the Capital Beltway and you could find parking. Instead, the majority of trips were a two-hour affair with the last hour being a 50-minute Metro ride from Shady Grove to Gallery Place.
Still, a solid base of fans are deciding to stay home in Orlando and support the Solar Bears to avoid the traffic. Both the Lightning and Solar Bears—or whatever minor league team exists given the fickleness of the ECHL—will not only give more options to get people introduced to the sport, but the rinks will provide better ice time to help form more competitive youth and junior clubs.
It’s a bit of a hassle to get to RDV if you’re coming from the south, having to pray that you don’t get stuck in the bottleneck that starts from the exit for Universal Studios. At least for this new Winter Garden rink, players from Lakeland and Tampa Bay can bypass Disney and Universal by hopping on Florida 429, a toll road, and get to the rink with more assurance that you’re not going to run into a standstill of cars. (Honestly, you’d probably would have better luck taking the toll road to get to RDV because of the bottleneck issues on I-4.)
Looking at the bigger picture, think how great this is for youth and adult hockey in the Lightning’s market. Not only are two sheets of ice being added in Orlando, but Wesley Chapel is starting on a four-sheet (really 3 1/2) rink at the same time. Remember the Wesley Chapel facility, at 150,000 square feet, would be Florida’s largest ice rink complex.
What this rink doesn’t do, however, is truly fill the void of the University of Florida ACHA team. As I touched on earlier this month, the team drives two hours to get to the RDV Sportsplex for home games or at times 90 minutes or more to Jacksonville. This rink shaves about 15 minutes off the time to RDV but still longer than what it takes to get to Jacksonville, a drive I can’t envision being all that convenient either. I don’t have a dog in a fight for a ice rink for the Gators, but the team is obviously dedicated to playing the game they love despite the long road trip just for a home game or practice. Someone do the boys a solid and get Gainesville a rink.