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Wednesday, Nov 14, 2018
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Hockey central? Ongoing effort to grow the girls game in Florida

WESLEY CHAPEL — At 9 years old, Felicity DeGracia has already mapped out her life: youth hockey, high school hockey, college hockey, Olympic hockey.

"It's a dream of mine," the fourth grader from South Tampa said of playing for Team USA.

It is a newly-formed dream. Felicity is playing her first year of ice hockey and it was not until November that she met Team USA's women's Olympic hockey team that based its pre-Olympic training at the Florida Hospital Center Ice facility off Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel.

"They're inspiring to little girls around the world," Felicity said. "Usually you think hockey is for boys, but then you have the girls over here kicking butt at hockey."

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There is really no way of knowing just how many girls in the Tampa Bay area were moved to try ice hockey because of Team USA's local presence during the past five months. Jane Solverson, USA Hockey's Southeastern girls and women's representative, said the initial impact will not be known until the local organizations hold registration for next season.

But Alyssa Grogan, who coaches the only two girls travel teams in the state at Florida Hospital Center Ice, said she will be adding a third team next year. And Kristen Bowness, who runs the Tampa Bay Lightning Girls hockey program, said she expects the number of girls in her program to double from the 22 she has this season.

That bump may sound somewhat modest, but consider: there are just five girls-only hockey teams in the state — two in Grogan's Florida Crunch, two in Orlando and the one Bowness coaches.

Five.

Solverson said you have to go to Charlotte, N.C., or Nashville to find the next closest all-girls youth team.

"It's five now, maybe it's 10 in a couple of years," Team USA captain Meghan Duggan said. "If we play a role in that, we'll take pride in that."

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Coach Morgan Phelps demonstrates a practice drill during a team practice session in Wesley Chapel. (Luis Santana | Times)

Florida Skate

Four Florida natives skate in the National Women's Hockey League while the under-18 national team has two Floridians on its roster. All six began their hockey careers in the Sunshine State, but left in high school to attend boarding schools in the northeast.

That is the current path followed by all the top-flight female players in this state. They play on boys teams, then head north in hopes of earning a college scholarship.

Delany Zerfess, 12, is a defenseman on the Tampa Bay Lightning girls team. Like teammate Felicity, Delany has met the members of the women's Olympic team and now has Olympic dreams of her own. And, like Felicity, she has an idea of what that will take.

"I want to go to a boarding school and play hockey up north," she said, "because that's where the Olympic players come from."

Bowness hopes to someday bring a halt to that migration.

When asked what her goal is for her girls program, Bowness said, "a skilled enough program where we can have the girls not have to leave for prep schools, where they can stay in Florida and still have that competitive edge without having to go to the northeast. So, if we can grow them in Florida and keep them in Florida, that's the ultimate goal."

Coach Morgan Phelps helps 11-year-old Felicity DeGracia with her helmet in the locker room before the start of practice. (Luis Santana | Times)

Holding their own

Youth hockey is not cheap. Ice time can run as much as $400 an hour split among each player, and equipment could run as much as $1,000, more if your daughter is a goalie.

The fee to play for the Florida Crunch is $3,000 per year and that does not include travel and hotel. Because it is the only girls travel team in the Southeast, the Florida Crunch not only has players from across Florida but from Georgia and Alabama. Most players have to stay in hotel rooms when they come to Wesley Chapel for a weekend practice.

"Our practice plans are very, very detailed," Grogan said. "When I have a girl driving eight hours, I can't waste 15 minutes just goofing around."

Grogan has taken her two teams — under-14 and under-16 — up north for tournaments in Charlotte, Rhode Island and Chicago. Because of the expense, she tries to maximize the trips.

Her girls toured the Providence College so her players could see a Division I-A facility up close. They played pond hockey while in Chicago.

Playing teams from Illinois and Wisconsin, the U16 team placed second in the Chicago tournament and the U14 third, a significant showing for a Florida ice hockey program.

"There's a lot to say when we're the only team in the state and we can compete with teams up north where there's a team in every city," Grogan said.

Members of the Tampa Bay Lightning girls ice hockey team meets at Florida Hospital Center Ice facility during a team practice session in Wesley Chapel. (Luis Santana, Times)

Why not here?

Hilary Knight, Duggan and the rest of Team USA gained another legion of followers during their time training in Florida.

Players from Grogan and Bowness' program met them during clinics and were invited on to the ice during the Four Nations Cup tournament that was held before Thanksgiving in Wesley Chapel. Team USA players posed for selfies, signed autographs and held clinics.

"Having the women's team here was a huge thing for the girls," Grogan said. "Unless they traveled out of the state, they've never seen our national program or that caliber of player. Even with my girls, I saw a lot of them say, 'Wow. I can't believe how fast, how big, how strong these players are.' "

Duggan, who donated windsuits and equipment bags to the Lightning's girl's program, was surprised to learn there are so few girls-only teams in this state.

"This facility is always jammed with people," she said. "They don't have many girl's teams but it's not for lack of effort. They're trying to grow the sport. People say, 'why Florida?' I say, 'Why not?'

"I think it's a great hockey community and we want to help it grow in any way we can."

Contact Roger Mooney at rmooney@tampabay.com. Follow @rogermooney50.

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