Like thousands of parents, the guy with the famous hockey name is doing what he loves the most this time of year – coaching kids on the ice.
But Ryan Sittler is doing it in a place that might give some Original Six purists the willies – an arena ringed by palm trees, bathed in tropical sunshine and a stone’s throw from the beach.
And he’s busier than ever. As director of youth hockey for the Palm Beach Breakers program in West Palm Beach, Mr. Sittler is at the centre of a hockey boom in South Florida that is the product of a unique alignment of factors, including side effects of the pandemic.
“Hockey is exploding here,” said Mr. Sittler, showing off the pro-quality features of the Palm Beach Ice Works arena where his 175-player program is based – the gym, the warmup rooms, the cushy seats with cup holders and, some say, the best popcorn around.
One factor filling up programs from Miami to Palm Beach is the success of the Florida Panthers this year. As Tampa experienced with the Lightning, the Panthers have learned that there’s nothing like a winning team to please the faithful and attract curious newcomers to their palm tree-studded arena on the edge of the Everglades in Sunrise. Panthers’ home-game attendance, once fairly sparse, has been at or near capacity this season.
But there is a more fundamental structural demographic shift driving the growth – northerners are migrating in droves to Southern states such as Florida to take up permanent residence, and they are taking their love of hockey with them.
“The growth in Florida hockey has been tremendous,” said Mimi Sellian, travel director for the Palm Beach Hawks. It’s an organization serving 500 kids on 11 travel teams, in a recreational league, and through learn-to-skate and learn-to-play programs at the Palm Beach SkateZone arena in Lake Worth, Fla. “Every day now there’s hockey around.”
Ms. Sellian said she gets “a constant and steady flow of calls and e-mails” from northern families looking to relocate to Florida and curious about programs for their hockey-playing children.
The reasons for the flight south are many. Remote work driven by the pandemic means many people can work from anywhere, and more are choosing warm climates. The low-tax, business-friendly environment of Florida has attracted northern businesses, including big companies such as New York-based Goldman Sachs, which has plans to open offices in West Palm Beach.
And Florida’s open policies on COVID-19 precautions, including banning vaccine and mask mandates, has drawn many from more-restrictive states, including those who got a taste of Florida hockey when their rinks at home were closed.
“They’re calling this part of Florida the Wall Street of the South, and as people move down here, there’s definitely been a greater interest in hockey,” Mr. Sittler said, adding that he gets regular calls from families in New York and Connecticut looking to relocate and asking for information on the program he has overseen for nine years.
Debbie Freitas, who manages the Hawks program with her husband, Carlos, said the organization is working with several local real estate agents who are using the youth hockey leagues as enticements to northern buyers.
“Realtors want to work with us – they are looking for a way to sell hockey as a part of their relocation packages,” Ms. Freitas said, adding that she has had inquiries from Montreal families as well as those in the U.S. northeast. “It’s unusual.”
Her husband, a Toronto transplant who has been involved in Florida youth hockey for three decades, said the quality of the youth programs in Florida is a key consideration for hockey families looking to relocate.
“It’s a priority, no question about it,” Mr. Freitas said. “A big part of our job is educating people who don’t know what Florida hockey is. It’s well-developed and growing.”
The influx of young hockey-playing northerners is making it even better, he said, as kids with higher skill levels integrate into local programs. Higher-calibre hockey is also attracting high-level coaches.
“They see the potential of what’s going on down here,” Mr. Freitas said. “That’s very good for us.”
Mr. Sittler agrees. And he knows something about pro-level instruction. A first-round draft pick with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1992, the London, Ont., native played in the AHL and ECHL. He is the son of Toronto Maple Leaf great and Hockey Hall of Famer, Darryl, and brother of Team USA forward, Meaghan. Two of his sons, Luke and Bradyn, played in the Breakers program.
But there’s a downside to the boom as well: capacity. Mr. Sittler said his biggest limit to growth is that he has only one sheet of ice to use for his nine travel teams.
Mr. Freitas can relate. “We have three sheets of ice. Most days, I could use four.”
Despite the pinch, both agree it is a good problem to have – and a good omen for the future of tropical hockey.
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