Florida Ever-Growing

Florida Everblades Making A Lasting Impact In The Sunshine State With Youth Programming and Back-To-Back ECHL Championships
Brian Lester

Gavin Brindley never imagined this moment. More than 19,000 people were inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., for the Frozen Four in early April. 

It was surreal for Brindley to be back in his home state playing on college hockey’s biggest stage just two hours from where he grew up in Estero.

Brindley developed his skills with a thriving Florida Jr. Everblades program, and now, all these years later, he was in Tampa representing the University of Michigan in one of the biggest moments of his hockey life.

“It’s crazy,” Brindley recalled. “Playing in your home state for (an NCAA championship) is incredible. I can’t tell you how many people were there watching me and supporting me back home. I got a lot of calls and texts before and after. It was pretty cool.”

Hockey has always been a part of Brindley’s life. He was coached by his dad, Ryan, when he was younger, and before that, Ryan played hockey for the Everblades, who won their second consecutive ECHL championship earlier this year.

It’s that tidbit of information right there about his dad being a former player turned coach for the youth program that has helped bolster the growth of the Jr. Everblades. Many former ECHL, and even NHL players, have made Florida their home.

“It’s crazy how many people play hockey down here now. I know when my dad hung up his skates he wanted to coach and help develop them in the sport.”

-Gavin Brindley

“They even have children participating in our program,” said Karl Masnjak, the vice president of recreation facilities and programs at Hertz Arena. 

“(Ernie) Hartlieb has two children in our program and helps out with our programs weekly all year round,” Masnjak said. “Ryan Brindley has been coaching kids in our Jr. Everblades, Florida Alliance Tier 1, Hertz-Arena in-house rec hockey and SE Elite for 19 years. He has coached his son, Gavin, Seamus Casey, Jacob Fowler and many others who have gone on to play at a very high level of DI and USHL (hockey).

“We now have many other former Everblade players following this trend with their children and giving back to the program.”

The Junior Everblades program has been in place for more than 20 years, beginning in 1998 and it continues to trend upward today. It features age groups that range from 6U on up through high school.

“The past five years have provided our program the largest growth since I began to build the program back in 1998,” Masnjak said. “Our grassroots programs bolster fantastic numbers. Our learn to skate classes average 400 members every eight weeks.”

The rising popularity of hockey in Florida has helped as well. The Tampa Bay Lightning have won three Stanley Cups, including back-to-back titles in 2020-21. Most recently, the Florida Panthers played for the Stanley Cup in June for the second time in franchise history.

And, of course, the Everblades have been successful at the ECHL level.

“It’s crazy how many people play hockey down here now,” Brindley said. “I know when my dad hung up his skates he wanted to coach and help develop them in the sport. Having him and other former players helping out is one of the reasons hockey has gotten so good here.

“The Everblades winning helps, too. I know a ton of those guys, and I’m sure a lot of them will do the same thing my dad and others have done when they are done playing to help grow the game even more.”

There are a lot of reasons the Everblades have thrived as a pro team in a state where hockey might not come to mind for many in the country.

Adam Winslow, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Florida Everblades and Hertz Arena, said strong ownership and leadership has created a positive culture on and off the ice. 

“The success of the Everblades has had a significant impact on the growth of hockey in the state of Florida,” Winslow said. “By consistently fielding a competitive team, providing an exciting game day experience and promoting hockey at the grassroots level out in the Southwest Florida community, the Everblades have helped generate an interest in hockey among Floridians who may have not been exposed to the sport before.”

“Families know now that you can grow up playing hockey in Florida and get to the highest level.”

-Karl Masnjak

As they say, success breeds success.

“This has led to increased participation in youth hockey programs, as well as the development of new rinks and facilities throughout the state,” Winslow added.

According to USA Hockey, Florida had the highest number of participants among states in the Southeastern region, with 19,550 playing last year.  In comparison, Florida had 6,286 participants (coaches, players and officials) when the Everblades launched in 1998. 

For the Junior Everblades, keeping players in the program is key. The 6U and 8U groups average 50-60 players each year.

“With retention being over 80%, our program will thrive for many years to come” Masnjak said. “We have families moving to our area for hockey. We believe our facility, programs, coaching and ownership are the best in the business, and it sure seems like many others feel that way as well.”

Being able to have year-round hockey helps, too, including a summer league that features 4-on-4 hockey.

“We have the structure in place to keep kids from leaving to play anywhere else, and that has benefited us,” Masnjak said.

There is also the success of former Everblades such as Brindley and Casey, who were both part of Michigan’s Frozen Four team this year. They were also members of the U.S. National Junior Team this past season.

Meanwhile, former Junior Everblade Jacob Fowler backstopped the Youngstown Phantoms to the 2023 Clark Cup Championship in the USHL and won MVP honors.

All three players are NHL draft picks too. Brindley was selected in the second round, 34th overall, by the Columbus Blue Jackets at this year’s NHL Draft, and Fowler went in the third round, 69th overall, to the Montreal Canadiens. Casey was selected 46th overall (Round 2) by the New Jersey Devils last year. 

“Families know now that you can grow up playing hockey in Florida and get to the highest level,” Masnjak said.

For Brindley, a lot of good memories came from those days in the Everblades’ youth program.

“It was really cool as a kid playing in the rink where the Everblades play,” Brindley said. “I lived two minutes from the rink and walked to the rink in flip flops and shorts every day. I knew I was going to go in and have a blast and work hard. It’s why I play the game and love it so much. Those experiences have helped make me who I am today.”

The future is bright for hockey in the Everblades’ program, meaning the door is open for some young player walking to the rink like Brindley did at one time to one day play in a Frozen Four or beyond.

“With our retention level high at our grassroots level, we expect our programs to continue to thrive so that more kids can enjoy our great game,” Masnjak said. “I truly do not believe there is another sport in the world that can teach our future stars so many important life lessons. Helping our youth and encouraging them to learn these lessons will play a significant role in allowing them to be successful in life and maybe someday pass these lessons along to their own children.”



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