ST. PETERSBURG, Florida -- Since the NHL brought the Lightning to Tampa Bay in the early 1990s, hockey fans have popped up all over the state of Florida. In the Bay area, specifically, many fans caught hockey fever when the Bolts won the Stanley Cup in 2004.
The first wave of hockey fans are all grown up now. Kids that were born shortly after the Bolts arrived in town are now lacing up their skates in high school jerseys. Those kids are hopeful the sport can grow into something the next generation embraces in this area just as much as they have.
"My first time on the rink I got hooked," said River Ridge sophomore Steven Noyes. "I never stopped. I've been going since I was seven."
The sport is new to the south but is as popular, maybe even more so, as basketball and football is up north in states like Minnesota, South Dakota, and Michigan.
"In Minnesota, it's way different. There are hundreds of people at each game," said East Lake's Chris Donnay, who moved to Florida two years ago from up north. "Down here, it's not a recognized sport. It's not sanctioned by the school. It makes the cost go a lot higher and kids in high school take a less interest to it.
"It's a whole different feel down here."
The Florida High School Athletics Association does not list hockey as an accredited high school sport. Kids from this area who are interested in hockey are forced to play in club teams, similar to AAU in basketball and other sports.
Not being recognized as an official high school sport is potentially hurting the sport's progress in this area.
Brian Bradley scored 111 goals in a Lightning uniform and was a member on the inaugural Tampa Bay team. Now, he's still involved with the hockey in this area. His mission: grow the game at the lowest levels to ensure the future of the game at its highest level.
"Kids get addicted," he said. "When I first came down here in 1992 people didn't really know much about hockey."
Bradley helped organize the Lightning Cup, which matches local high school club teams against each other. East Lake beat River Ridge, 7-3, and Mitchell downed Jesuit, 6-4, on Monday night. The championship game will be held at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Wednesday.
"I think our goal is to be a recognized sport at the high school level," said Bradley. "For these kids right now ... I mean this is a dream come true."
The interest is there but, for many families, the major drawback to getting into youth hockey is the financial side of the sport. Without the support from the FHSAA the cost goes sky high for parents.
"You're probably looking at about $700 startup cost and when you get into the travel (leagues), you're looking at some pretty big money," said East Lake head coach Jim Anna. "It's $2,100 just for the season dues."
The obvious stumbling block to getting hockey as a recognized sport is the lack of ice rinks to play. There are rinks in Oldsmar, Brandon and Clearwater, as well as a few other places in Tampa Bay, but the number of rinks needed to support an entire counties-worth of high school hockey teams just don't currently exist.
"In Florida, it's going to be hard," said Anna. "We're going to need more ice rinks if we're going to grow like that."