USA Hockey announced on May 5 that the team will call the new Florida Hospital Center Ice (FHCI) its home beginning in September, and leading right up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The 2017-18 U.S. Women’s National Team will move its headquarters to Wesley Chapel as it prepares to win gold at the upcoming Winter Games Feb. 9-25.
“This is a big deal for us,’’ says Gordie Zimmermann, FHCI’s general manager. “This is giving us international exposure, and it’s a great thing for our community.”
Zimmermann says Tampa Bay Lightning chairman and governor Jeff Vinik was one of many to congratulate him on winning the bidding rights to be the home for the woman’s team.
“He called to say this was a great thing for us, them being here,’’ Zimmermann says.
Jay Feaster, the former general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and currently its executive director for community hockey development, says the upcoming U.S. team camp will be great for the area and even better for the growth of women’s hockey in Florida.
There is currently only one elite team for girls in the Tampa Bay area, which is based out of Lakeland.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for us in terms of trying to grow the women’s game at the youth level,’’ Feaster says. “The challenge is making young people aware of the game, and letting girls know that they can, in fact, play.”
Feaster said the Lightning will have a presence during U.S. training. The organization already has invested $6 million to grow the game through its “Build The Thunder” program, which visits hundreds of schools in the area and teaches students street hockey in order to introduce them to the game.
Feaster notes that the Lightning has been working on creating girls hockey leagues for aspiring players, and is hopeful of fielding an elite team to compete around the state later this summer.
“Our goal is to get it where you don’t have local, talented kids that feel like to get to a Division I scholarship or make it to the next level, they have to leave the state,’’ Feaster says. “To have this spotlight on us, it’s just a great opportunity for our female players.”
Feaster and Zimmermann both credit the efforts of Brett Strot in getting Team USA to make Wesley Chapel its home.
Strot is a longtime assistant coach with a number of the women’s national teams, and also is the head coach of the USPHL Tampa Bay Junior (Elite and Empire) hockey clubs that play out of FHCI.
Zimmermann says that a few other cities bid to host the women’s national team, but the combination of the weather, Saddlebrook Resort (where the players will stay) and FHCI’s multiple rinks and training facilities was too good for USA Hockey to pass up.
“It was just a really good fit,’’ Zimmermann says.
The announcement that the team would be based in Wesley Chapel came on the same day USA Hockey announced the 23 players named to the U.S. Women’s National team in a ceremony at Amalie Arena, the downtown Tampa home of the Lightning, that was broadcast live on the NHL Network.
The selections came at the conclusion of a weeklong U.S. Women’s National Team Selection Camp that took place May 1-5 at FHCI, featuring 42 invited players and including a scrimmage that was open to the public.
Of the 23 players selected, 21 were on the team that recently defeated Canada to win the gold medal at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championships.
Also, 12 members of the new national team also were on the 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic team that won the silver medal, after losing to Canada 3-2 in overtime (the first time the gold medal was decided in OT in women’s Olympic hockey). Eleven states are represented on the new roster, led by Minnesota (6), Massachusetts (4) and Wisconsin (3).
There are no Florida players on the team this year, but Zimmermann and Feaster both say they hope that someday, that will change.
“This is truly a team of elite athletes and great role models,” Feaster says. “Best of all, they win, too. There are two programs that are the preeminent women’s teams in the world, and that’s the U.S. and Canada (which has won the last four gold medals). Chances are, you’ll see them playing each other next year for the gold medal, too.”
Look for more stories about the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team in future issues of this publication and on WCNT-tv.