Prep sports in Florida are kind of a big deal. High school football, basketball, baseball, wrestling... Heck, it goes from the prep level to the college game; Florida hosts and produces some great amateur talent for colleges across the US that later goes on to professional sports. Sports fans in the state also seem to have a major appreciation for the young talents of the prep and college level sports.
With 20 years of top-level (NHL) professional ice hockey in the state, the appreciation for ice hockey has gone beyond that of the professional level of the game. For years now, Florida has hosted junior hockey by way of teams in the MET and EJHL South (formerly the SEJHL). Two respective high school ice hockey leagues (the Florida High School Hockey Association and the Florida Scholastic Hockey League). And while Florida colleges aren't known for participating in NCAA hockey, most major schools in-state do have club hockey programs.
While it's only a matter of time before you start hearing more about Florida-born players going on to professional hockey careers, there's an aspect of hockey that Florida hasn't been exposed to directly, nor has most of the United States for that matter. The annual, international event that pits the best young players in the world against one another is downplayed when compared to other tournaments in sports culture. Yet for two weeks every winter, the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Junior Championships showcases the best and brightest from nations around the globe.
What would it take to have West-Central Florida host the World Junior Championships?
The idea is not new, at least not for those who listen to me muse from time to time. Former Raw Charge writer Cassie McClellan, in the distant past, had taken a private discussion point between us and made it a complete article on From The Rink, asking the hockey world about a junior tournament being played somewhere that isn't frigid.
That discussion point itself was inspired by an adverse reaction that players had to participating in the 2011 World Junior tournament in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo is not known as a tourist Mecca, especially in December and January. It is close to the border with Canada, which is supposed to be the primary motivator when the United States hosts the tournament: host cities being close to the border is good for the sake of ticket sales. After that, though, there's not much to boast.
That's not exactly a savvy way to grow the game or boost the popularity of the tournament, now is it? It's a safe choice, by keeping the spectacle close to the most hockey-centric country on the North American continent. Interest in the WJC's doesn't start and stop in Canada, while games in towns near the border don't entice more than the most die-hard of spectators to attend.
The next US hosted World Juniors will be 5 years from now, in 2018 (with another hosting three years later in 2021), and while I've come across one article asking about the 2018 Junior Championships and which American city should host, Florida was jammed as an afterthought option - with Sunrise and Tampa joined together in an unrealistic bid idea in that the distance between the proposed host venues of the Tampa Bay Times Forum and BB&T Arena in Sunrise is just too much.
With that in mind, West Central Florida could viably host the World Junior Championships. The idea may be cringe inducing to traditionalists, but that doesn't mean the idea is as out-there as stereotypes will make it.
Tampa Bay itself has two viable venues to use if it were to make a bid to play host to the WJCs (which require two venues for all the games played during the tourney)... While the Tampa Bay Times Forum immediately jumps to mind (as it is the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning), the second venue isn't exactly fresh on people's minds. It's been quite a while since it was on our collective radar from hosting hockey.
That second venue within the region isn't Tropicana Field (formerly known as Thunderdome in its hockey-hosting days), the baseball stadium in St. Petersburg. No, the venue is the George Jenkins Arena in Lakeland, part of the complex known as the Lakeland Center. In the distant past, the Lightning would play preseason exhibition games there. And while the venue has been renovated and expanded, the Jenkins Arena had utilized its ice surfacing abilities as recently as last month.
With a hockey seating capacity around 6,000, the building fits in perfectly as a secondary (smaller) venue for the tournament, with focus on the Tampa Bay Times Forum as the primary venue.
Another option for a secondary arena, at a greater distance, would be Germain Arena in Estero (which is near Ft. Myers and Naples on Florida's southwest coast). The home of the ECHL's Florida Everblades seats 7,200 for hockey (but at a distance of 144 miles from the Tampa Bay Times Forum)
Yet, another way to go about hosting the tournament and grabbing international attention at the same time would be by expanding event locations east. While Tampa Bay itself holds some international appeal (warmer weather, beaches), the city more often visited and featured as a destination in Central Florida is Orlando. Where Sunrise (where the Florida Panthers play) is too far to the south to make sense as a partner for a WJCs hosting push, Orlando is a mere 90 miles away.
It's not like city partnerships haven't been part of successful hosting bids in the past; Calgary and Edmonton made a successful joint-bid to host the 2012 World Juniors.
While Amway Center is a smaller building for hockey (seating 17,353), Orlando could trump Tampa in a joint bid with thanks to its higher profile as a destination (Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and other theme parks give it a higher name ID) as well as Orlando and Sanford International Airports and their greater number of direct and indirect international flights from Canada and Europe.
Tampa's the hockey market, though and the one that can generate a local turnout for games.
A necessary bit of infrastructure for the games would be practice facilities for the teams. That isn't an issue with Ellenton Ice, Tampa Bay Skating Academy, Brandon Ice Sports Forum and the Clearwater Iceplex in the immediate Tampa Bay area, along with other facilities in the region further to the east and south.
With the logistics in mind and knowledge that Tampa Bay has hosted grand hockey events like the Stanley Cup Finals and the NCAA men's ice hockey Frozen Four as well as other high-profile sporting events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball Final Four (the big game itself and earlier rounds of the tournament).
There's a drawback though that is a bigger argument against attempting to play the WJCs in a non-traditional, high-profile location. It's one that most sports fans know of regarding their sport of interest - the notion that the event itself becomes a spectacle and the games, the actual competition, becomes an afterthought. And seeing it's an amateur competition, it's another reason people shouldn't want to see it happen. We already get too much of that with college sports in the US. To see an over-commercialized, over-exposed corruption take place with the World Junior Championships would be a turn-off.
It doesn't mean genuine interest doesn't exist for non-border towns to host the tournament, though. It also doesn't mean it's a bad idea to expose the tournament to a wider audience of hockey fans. That's something for USA Hockey and the IIHF to figure out for themselves for 2018 and future years when the United States is set to host.