After three years, all the hype, all the build-up, all the delays and the excruciating final weeks of twists and tweaks to get the latest jewel of the Wesley Chapel community opened, there was still just one thing was missing.

Ice, ice, baby.

But finally, with a thick layer of the cold stuff beneath their feet, managing partner Gordie Zimmermann of developer ZMitch, LLC, led a parade of local dignitaries across the Florida Hospital Center Ice rink for the ceremonial puck drop on Jan. 25, swinging open the doors to a whole new audience.

“The fulfillment of a dream,’’ Zimmermann called it. “This has just been a fabulous experience. The community has embraced this project, and we’re really proud to have it here in Pasco County.”

Zimmermann and his ZMitch partner George Mitchell, Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce (WCCC) CEO Hope Allen, Florida Hospital CEO Denyse Bales-Chubb, District 2 Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore, former Tampa Bay Lightning captain and current Vice President of Corporate & Community Affairs Dave Andreychuk and Father Len Plazewski of Christ the King Church in south Tampa — who blessed the ice with holy water —each said a few words to the 200-plus people in attendance and then dropped pucks to signal the official opening of FHCI.

With his stick, Zimmermann slid his puck across the ice. Allen, who emceed the event, tried to the do the same, but her puck slid backwards as she tried to contain her laughter. It seemed a fitting moment, however, as the new facility will cater not only to the best and most experienced skaters and shooters, but also to those holding a hockey stick for the first time and wanting to learn.

“It’s such a great facility,’’ Allen said. “It has so much to offer the community. It’s definitely going to be something that sets Wesley Chapel apart.”

The $28-million, 150,500-sq.-ft. facility, located on Cypress Ridge Blvd. just northeast of the interchange of S.R. 56 and I-75, is billed as the largest skating complex south of New York and is expected to be a big-time game changer in the quickly growing Wesley Chapel area.

“This is a huge opportunity to continue to grow the game and make sure kids in this area have the opportunity so that they may learn the great game that we all love,’’ said Andreychuk, who was the captain of the Lightning when the team won its only Stanley Cup in 2005. “On behalf of Jeff Vinik and the Tampa Bay Lightning, this is a great day and were looking for more great things to happen.”

The economic impact of FHCI, according to a study the developers commissioned, will be $20-$30 million a year, and maybe more. Zimmermann has said he expects FHCI to draw roughly two million visitors annually.

Many of those visitors wasted little time hitting the new sheets of ice. On the evening on the Jan. 25, the complex’s first open skate was held and it drew 308 people. The following night, according to an FHCI spokesperson there were more than 200 skaters, and the youth hockey and Learn to Skate classes had 375 registrants for the first day of classes on Saturday, January 28.

On Sunday, Zimmermann says, the two two-hour open skate sessions attracted more than 600 skaters combined.

FHCI features three NHL-sized hockey rinks, one Olympic-size rink (which is wider than an NHL rink), as well as a smaller mini ice pad for training and a removable “sports court” floor that fts over obe of the NHL-sized rinks that can accommodate “dry” sports like basketball and volleyball, as well as large corporate events and conferences.

Even prior to the ceremonial puck drop, the facility had already hosted a few corporate events. Zimmermann says that while hockey is still the central component driving FHCI, the rink’s versatility makes it much more than that.

The facility also will feature the Top Shelf Sports Lounge on the second floor, overlooking the rinks, a fitness center, a sports performance center and one for sports skills which also can accommodate training and activities like yoga, Pilates and even dance classes. There is a pro shop run by Rinkside Sports, which sells hockey, figure skating equipment, Lightning T-shirts and jerseys and more. FHCI’s opening could be considered “soft,” as Zimmermann says it is currently running at roughly 75-80 percent of its capabilities. The fitness and ballet studios and the restaurant are still under construction, with Top Shelf set to open in late February or early March.

“This is going to be a community building that everyone here in Wesley Chapel and around Pasco County can (benefit from),’’ said Andreychuk. “It’s not just about developing kids to play hockey or to learn figure skating. It’s going to be an awesome place for all of us here.”

It will be a busy first year, Zimmermann says. The high school hockey State Championships will be held at FHCI on Feb. 24-27. And, on Saturday, March 28, the Taste of New Tampa & Wesley Chapel will be held at the venue (see pages 1 and 3).

In June, FCHI will host Skate For Hope, a cancer benefit that will feature some of the world’s top figure skaters, as well as a national roller hockey tournament.

FHCI, which will be home to USF’s hockey teams as well as local high schools and the Tampa Bay Juniors hockey program for competitve players ages 16-20, is also holding adult hockey leagues and will add curling leagues in the future.

And, don’t be surprised to see FHCI host the occasional NHL team in town for a game against the Lightning, or on the way to play the Florida Panthers. As for the Lightning, the organization is expected to have a presence year-round at FHCI with occasional camps and clinics.

“This is just the beginning,’’ Allen said.

For more info about FHCI (3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd.), visit Florida HospitalCenterIce.com, or search “FloridaHospitalCenterIce” on Facebook.

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