Head coach Garrett Strot addresses the Tampa Bay Juniors during a weekday practice session ahead of the start of the 2018-19 season. (Photo: Andy Warrener)

From hosting a myriad of tournaments to being home to the U.S. Women’s hockey team to holding a variety of top-flight camps, Florida Hospital Center Ice (FHCI) continues to be a Lightning rod (pun intended) for ice sports.

It also is becoming one of the centers of the youth hockey universe, able to host — and keep home — some of the most promising teenage hockey players in our area, with its highly-regarded Tampa Bay Juniors teams, which are owned by U.S. Women’s National Team coach Brett Strot and coached by his brother Garrett Strot.

“There are a lot of really strong hockey players in the greater Tampa Bay area,” Brett says. “We want to keep them here and push them to higher levels.”

The Tampa Bay Juniors might be the area’s best-kept sports secret (until now). The club’s Premier team went 30-14-0 last year, while the Elite team sported a 32-12-0 record in 2017-18.

The club is for youth hockey players, ages 16-20, and both teams participate in the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL).

The goal is to get youth hockey players through the transition from high school to college, while offering skills refinement and scouting exposure, before the players make their decision about whether or not to try to move on to the next level.

“It’s typical (even in Canada) for youth hockey players to play one or two years (of junior hockey) after high school before they go to college,” Strot said. “These kids are looking to advance their game.”

Former Wiregrass Ranch teammates Spencer Geer (left) and Zach Parker have both been playing for the Tampa Bay Juniors ice hockey program.  (Photo: Andy Warrener)

There also are bonds to be formed. Take, for example, Wesley Chapel-area athletes and former Wiregrass Ranch High teammates Spencer Geer and Zach Parker. The pair have played in youth leagues together since they were six and seven years old. Geer was born in 1998 and Parker in 1999, so they were only on the same teams every other year, as Geer would age out of different age groups.

When they got to high school, their bond and their chemistry hit a new level.

“We make some plays where sometimes we don’t even how it works,” Parker says. “But, it just works.”

Both Parker and Geer played all four years on the mixed Wiregrass Ranch High team. They made it to the State championship game together in 2017, where Wiregrass lost to Mitchell High, which, at the time, boasted Nathan Smith, who was drafted by the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets earlier this year.

“We played against him (Smith) our whole career,” Geer said. “He is at a skill level that’s just above lots of people.”

Geer, now in his fourth and final year with the Juniors, and Parker, who is in his third, are working hard to get to that skill level.

“Juniors is very good at developing players,” Parker says. “They help you build lots of speed and their off-ice training really helps with stick handling.”

Both also currently work at FHCI, attend Pasco Hernando State College and are considering playing for USF’s club team that competes in American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division III.

A Little History…

Strot started the Tampa Bay Juniors in 2008, when he lived in Jacksonville. That team was called the Jacksonville Ice Dogs. They played two years in Jacksonville, before moving to Ellenton (Bradenton area) and then to Estero (south of Ft. Myers).

On January 21, 2017, six days before the official Grand Opening of FHCI, Strot made official the move to Wesley Chapel, as his Tampa Bay Juniors played against the Palm Beach Hawks.

Athletes in junior hockey programs are encouraged and often do take college classes here and there, but don’t usually enroll in college, so that they can retain their years of eligibility when they finally get to college. The idea is to get an athlete more exposure to college coaches and to increase their chances of getting a scholarship — or a better scholarship — than they might have already had until then.

Strot himself is a great example. While living in Minnesota, he had a few Division III offers coming out of high school. He played one year of junior hockey and wound up with multiple Division I offers, eventually suiting up for the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

“A lot of kids don’t get to that window of a strength and speed surge until they’re 17, sometimes 18,” Strot says. “And, speed is the biggest difference in the game of hockey as you go up in levels.”

A recent testament to the benefits of junior hockey is Luke Perunovich, who moved from hockey-rich Minnesota to play for the Tampa Bay Juniors. After not getting much ice time in high school, he played one year for the Juniors and is now a freshman at Division I Providence College in Providence, R.I.

“(Perunovich) is a perfect example of what juniors hockey is all about,” Strot says. “It gives players more time to develop.”

The Tampa Bay Juniors offer both Elite and Premier teams. Elite players are trying to work up to the Premier division, although there are players who play for both squads. The third division, which is not offered by Tampa Bay Juniors, is the National Collegiate Development Conference, or NCDC.

“The goal is to get there, but kids in Elite or Premier can still get to colleges,” Strot says.

Just last season, the Tampa Bay Juniors sent 12 athletes to college hockey clubs.

The USPHL Florida Showcase is set for the weekend of December 14-16 at FHCI and will pit 22 teams against each other that play a total of 48 games over the course of the weekend. For more information about the Tampa Bay Juniors, visit TampaJr.com.

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