Often dismissed for being a non-traditional market, the continued presence of the Florida Panthers has quietly revitalized a once non-existent youth hockey culture in South Florida.
Now, over 20 years since the team arrived and the seeds of hockey were planted, Florida’s first generation of Panther-raised hockey players are starting to make their way to the NHL.
Recently, former JR Panthers like defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a Margate native, have brought attention to Florida’s flourishing youth hockey culture. Awarded MVP honors after leading Union College to their first Frozen Four championship, Gostisbehere signed a three-year contract with the Philadelphia Flyers this offseason.
Two of these local talents, defenseman Colin Suellentrop of Plantation and right wing Cody Payne of Weston, were invited by Panthers general manager Dale Tallon to attend the team’s annual development camp in Coral Springs this week.
"Hockey’s growing in Florida, period," Panthers manager of player development Bryan McCabe said confidently. "Kids are getting better and better and now you’re starting to see kids actually make it to the NHL. We’re very fortunate to have (two) local kids here who certainly do not look out of place at this camp."
Suellentrop, a fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, has spent the past five seasons playing for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League. In his final season with Oshawa, he notched three goals and 20 assists in 67 games.
Drawn to the ice at a young age, Suellentrop, 21, spent countless hours of his childhood at the Panthers practice facility while playing youth hockey with the JR Panthers.
"My earliest memories are (going to) 5:30 a.m. skating lessons here (at the IceDen) and I always wondered what was on the other side of these doors, what the locker room looked like, and it’s obviously a good feeling to finally figure it out,’" Suellentrop told the Sun-Sentinel.
Now, standing on the other side of the doors that were once shrouded in mystery, Suellentrop is working hard to impress coaches and scouts, hoping the next door he opens will lead to the NHL.
Payne, a fifth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2012, has spent the past five seasons playing in the OHL, most recently with the Saginaw Spirit. In his final season with Saginaw, he scored 26 goals and 35 points in just 57 games.
Born in England, Payne migrated to Florida as a child and quickly became enamored with both hockey and the Panthers.
"The first time I really caught on to hockey is my dad took me to the draft down here (at the now BB&T Center) in 2000 when Stephen Weiss got drafted," Payne said while standing near the locker that Weiss once called his own. "He was kind of the first Panther I ever saw. Really the Panthers influenced me from a very young age."
Sporting a toothless grin much like that of Weiss, Payne expressed his pleasure in having not only another Floridian at the camp, but also, a friend.
"We’re pretty close friends and if we both were to make this team or make San Antonio that would be something unheard of almost," said Payne. "It’s a real honor to be here and to have him here with me makes it a lot easier."
No strangers to their surroundings or each other, Suellentrop and Payne’s friendship began as children when the two played in a roller hockey league together. Later, as both made their way to the OHL, they roomed together for parts of two seasons with Oshawa from 2010-2011.
Still in the very early stages of their hockey careers, the fact that both Suellentrop and Payne have made it this far shows that South Florida hockey players can certainly take the heat — literally and figuratively.
"I guess I’m a little more accustomed to the heat," Payne said of the often unforgiving South Florida weather. "A couple of (my teammates) are complaining, but I told them they’re lucky to be down here."