Welcome To The Sunshine Skate

USA Hockey’s Adult Nationals Look To Cap Off A Challenging Year In Style

The ocean breezes that blow in off the Atlantic Ocean and blanket the south Florida town of Wesley Chapel are a welcome respite to the biting winds that Aaron Ackley is used to in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.

The trade off, even if it's only for a couple of days, is well worth the journey as Ackley and his Buffalo Ice Men teammates make their annual pilgrimage south to compete in USA Hockey's Adult National Championships.

For more than 20 years they have banged and bumped and butted heads with many of the same competitors from other parts of the country even as they have advanced in years and age divisions. And when the games are over, they follow the same routine of getting together to relive the past 60 minutes with friends and foes alike.

As is the case with so many things during this unusual year, Ackley has no idea what to expect when he and his teammates arrive at the Advent Health Center Ice just north of Tampa. What they are counting on is the competition and comradery that have always marked participating in a USA Hockey Adult National tournament. 

"I think what's going to be the biggest change this year is the social factor. That's what has really suffered the most during the past year, whether it's hockey, work or personal life," Ackley said. "My favorite part about going down to Florida is seeing guys that we've battled against and that we come to respect. That's the best part."

Over the past decade, adult hockey has been the fastest growing segment of the USA Hockey population. With more local and national events on the docket and a user-friendly registration system, more adult teams are taking advantage of the USA Hockey membership benefits. This season, those registration numbers have taken a hit due to local restrictions that prohibit on-ice competition.

"We have so many rinks that aren't open, or have put restrictions on what teams can do on the ice," said Don Mulder, USA Hockey vice president and chair of the Adult Council. 

"Adults don't want to practice and they don't like to scrimmage. They come to play games, have a great time, get some exercise and maybe have a few beers in a locker room afterwards. That hasn't been able to happen in many places this year."

Despite the drop, this year's men's tournament, slated for April 15-18, is shaping up to be one of the best in years. Ashley Bevan, USA Hockey's senior director of adult hockey, is estimating that 50 teams will be competing in 10 divisions. And on the women's side, the tournament runs April 22-25 in the same location with 25 out of 40 possible spots already spoken for.

One of them is the Carolina Lady Hurricanes, which has managed to get on the ice for a couple of tournaments this season.

Witley Nichols has been a mainstay on the team over the past eight seasons, but rehabilitating a torn ACL will keep her off the ice and behind the bench this time around. Still, she looks forward to being around other adult players who have the same passion for the game that she does.

"People realize this is a competitive tournament and it gets heated out there because everybody obviously wants to win, but once you step away from the ice, everybody is just fantastic. It's such a great community," she said.

"Even though we might be on different teams, you'll see teams in the lobby talking and joking with each other. Everybody loves to be there for that environment where we just get to see each other and hang out and play the sport that we love."

After a tough season, Mulder is looking at this year's tournament as a great way to focus on the future rather than dwell on the past.

"It's going to be a great event at a great four-sheet facility. And the other important thing is it's 38 minutes from the beach," Mulder said. "It's the comradery and the good times that they bring to that event. It's just a good way to end what has been a challenging year and hopefully start out the new year on a positive note." 




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