Quality versus quantity might be the mantra of the Florida Junior Panthers.
“The difference down here is that there aren’t the number of players that there are in Massachusetts or Minnesota,” said Junior Panthers President Jeff Campol.
But those numbers haven’t limited the development or expectations for the south Florida association.
“In our 17-year existence, I think we’ve developed a good number of players that have played college hockey and NHL hockey,” Campol said.
The most recent Junior Panthers alumnus in the spotlight is Shayne Gostisbehere. The former Union College defenseman was voted the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player last spring after the Dutchmen beat the University of Minnesota, 7-4, in the 2014 NCAA Division I national championship.
Gostisbehere also was a Hobey Baker Award finalist and played on the United States National Junior Team that won gold at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. He has since joined the Philadelphia Flyers organization.
“Shayne grew up here and started very young,” Campol said.
Other Junior Panthers alumni of note include Andrew Yogan, drafted by the New York Rangers, Gabe Guertler, a forward with the Ontatio Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds, and Jakob Chychrun, who was the first overall pick in the 2014 OHL Draft by the Sarnia Sting.
“A lot of these guys come back over the summer when they train,” Campol said. “When they’re back here, some help out with our hockey schools.”
As the association’s name might indicate, the Junior Panthers benefit from being the official youth travel organization of the NHL’s Florida Panthers.
“The help isn’t monetary, but we carry their brand,” Campol said. “We carry their moniker wherever we go.”
With that name recognition comes additional responsibilities.
“We sit down with every team and reiterate, ‘You’re ambassadors of the Florida Panthers. When you’re wearing the Junior Panthers logo, it’s who we are,’” Campol said. “We hammer home, ‘You’re playing at a special arena [the Panthers Ice Den] and for a special organization, so treat it that way.’”
Because, as Campol indicated, Florida isn’t a traditional hockey market, it’s important that the Junior Panthers “carry the torch” and promote “good, competitive teams.”
“We don’t get, ‘It’s a team from Florida so they’re a pushover,’” Campol said. “We compete very well.
“We’re tied at the hip with the Panthers. Some of the Panthers come to our practices, and some have kids who play in the organization. The emphasis in our building is to promote grassroots hockey, which will help us grow fans.”
Another way in which the Junior Panthers promote grassroots hockey is by hosting three tournaments that invariably sell out well before the first puck is dropped: the Early Bird Tournament, the Thanksgiving Day Tournament and the Presidents’ Day Tournament.
“The Early Bird is a tune-up tournament,” Campol said. “It’s local within Florida with teams from Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, etc. It’s an opportunity to get people on the ice to see where they stand.
“The Thanksgiving Day Tournament has had as many as 72 teams. We draw from as far away as Russia and Canada, while the Presidents’ Day Tournament has 40 to 50 teams.”
One reason the Junior Panthers are able to host tournaments of this nature is that the Panthers Ice Den is the only triple-sheet facility southeast of Washington, D.C.
Because of the quality of skaters developed by the organization, the Junior Panthers have won numerous championships at tournaments like their own Presidents’ Day Tournament, the annual Minnesota Gone Wild Tournament, the Amesbury/Bert Robinson Hockey Tournament in Toronto and the Niagara Falls Blizzard Challenge.
“Our program is Single-A and Double-A,” Campol said. “We try to look for tournaments that are well-suited for us.
“In the three prior years, we had two teams go to USA Hockey Youth Nationals. To get to nationals at those levels doesn’t happen that often. We’re proud of our coaches and how we represent the Panthers’ brand.”
In order to attain this type of success, players, coaches and parents must adhere to the Junior Panthers’ philosophy.
“Players display a positive attitude in many ways, including being grateful for the opportunity to participate and represent our organization at a competitive level,” Campol said. “While competition is important, participants should play for fun, being both humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
“Our players learn the rules and play by them.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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