Olli Jokinen’s 17-plus-year career as an NHL player was over by the summer of 2015. But instead of a difficult transition into a second career, there was a clear path for Jokinen.
He had played for 10 NHL teams — including the Florida Panthers from 2000 to 2008 — and some of those clubs wanted him to become an assistant coach.
Jokinen took a different route, blazing a trail of fresh ice.
Together with his business partner and good friend Mikko Saarni, Jokinen in late 2015 created the South Florida Hockey Academy (SFHA).
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“I was born and raised in a hockey family,” said Jokinen, a 39-year-old native of Finland. “My father played professional hockey in Europe. I love the sport. I love to watch hockey on TV.
“It was natural for me to try to build something in South Florida that hasn’t been done in the past.”
There are other hockey programs in South Florida, such as the Junior Panthers, which has produced two huge success stories in Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, 24, who is from Pembroke Pines; and Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun, 19, who is from Boca Raton.
But Gostisbehere, for example, had to leave South Florida for a prep school in Connecticut at age 16.
Jokinen’s vision is to build the SFHA to the point where kids won’t have to leave here until it’s time for juniors, college or the pros.
So far, the plan appears to be working. When compared to the Junior Panthers, SFHA is at another level in terms having fitness trainers, nutrition experts and big-time coaching.
With that comes a hefty price tag, however.
There are 60 kids enrolled in SFHA’s full-year program, and the enrollment starts at $10,000 for the younger players and goes up considerably. That $10,000 yearly fee includes five out-of-state tournaments and all the flights and hotels.
ACADEMY IS EXPANDING
There’s a Under-16 team as well as U-12 and U-11. Next year, a U-18 team will be added.
That U-16 team includes five players from Finland, three from the Czech Republic and one each from Russia, Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia.
“We play Tier-1 against all the top teams in the U.S. and Canada,” Jokinen said. “We have to recruit those players because we don’t yet have Florida kids capable of playing at that level.
“The goal is that in two, three or four years we will have 85 percent of our U-16 and U-18 teams from Florida. But we’re not there yet. It will take time to produce our own players.”
Besides Jokinen, SFHA’s ownership group includes two other ex-Panthers. They are Tomas Vokoun, a 41-year-old native of the Czech Republic who was an NHL goalie for nearly two decades; and Radek Dvorak, a 40-year-old native of the Czech Republic who was an NHL right winger for nearly two decades and was the Panthers’ first-round pick in 1995, 10th overall.
Vokoun coaches the U-16 team along with Jokinen. And Dvorak, who coaches the U-11 team, said this venture has allowed him to “give back” to the hockey community.
“We want to help these kids,” Dvorak said. “We want to give them a chance. We want to share our knowledge and experience with these kids.”
In addition to Dvorak, Jokinen and Dvorak, another former Panthers involved is defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who is not part of ownership but is an SFHA coach.
Given all that big-time experience, it’s no wonder the SFHA is growing.
In March, the academy will move its base from Glacier Ice and Snow Arena in Pompano Beach to Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
“We’re going to have more ice availability,” Jokinen said. “We’re going to have three full rinks instead of one. That will allow us to host tournaments, bringing teams from up north so we don’t have to travel as much.
“And even though we are two separate things, being associated with the Panthers IceDen is a big thing for us because we can share ideas.”
Jokinen said there are about 40 kids who are not enrolled in the academy who still come out to SFHA clinics throughout the week.
In the summer, SFHA camps can draw between 120 to 200 kids. Interest is indeed growing.
Even so, there are still disadvantages to playing hockey in a “non-traditional” market.
For starters, there are just six rinks in the three-county area. Besides IceDen and Glacier Ice, there’s Palm Beach Ice Works, Palm Beach Skate Zone, Pines Ice Arena and Kendall Ice Arena.
“In Canada,” Jokinen said, “there’s a rink every five miles.”
The weather is another issue. In northern winters, kids go outside and skate. That’s not possible here, and that makes the battle to find rink time either more vital.
But those obstacles haven’t deterred 11-U players such as William Anderson of the Junior Panthers program from taking up the sport.
Jeff Anderson, who is William’s father, said there are actually advantages to being an aspiring hockey player in South Florida.
“Growing up in Toronto and playing hockey there for years, the only time I saw a Maples Leafs [NHL] player was on TV,” Anderson said. “Everyone wanted to be near them, but you couldn’t really touch them.”
Anderson said the Junior Panthers and other local hockey programs get to sit on the real Panthers’ bench during home games. Some youth players get to stand next to Panthers players during the national anthem.
At IceDen practices, Panthers players will often pass by the kids on the way to the locker-room, slapping high-fives with the children as they skate through.
Down here, a big-time hockey fix can be easier to access than up north.
“In Toronto, you have a 10-year waiting list for season tickets,” Jokinen said. “Here, you can decide at 6:45 that you want to go watch a 7 p.m. game, and there will be tickets available.
“You see the [NHL] players a lot more, on and off the ice.”
Training quality hockey players is possible down here, Anderson said.
“There are a lot of families down here who grew up in hockey environments such as Canada and Russia,” Anderson said. “We don’t’ have as much player depth here. You have to do a lot more traveling. Every parent understands there are long odds.
“But [Gostisbehere] showed it can be done.”