William Anderson, a 9-year-old aspiring hockey player who trains at the Florida Panthers’ IceDen practice facility, once had a brief conversation with Jaromir Jagr, owner of the second-most points in NHL history as well as a world-famous mullet hairstyle.
“Sick flow,” said Anderson, who has long locks of his own.
“Yeah,” Jagr said. “You, too.”
These days, it’s not just Anderson’s hair that is impressing. The Boca Raton resident recently won a hockey competition that earned him a trip to All-Star weekend in Tampa.
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On Jan. 26, Anderson, a shooter, and 10-year-old Zachary Shield, a goalie from Parkland, will represent the Panthers against 15 other NHL-sponsored teams in a “Mini 1-on-1 Tournament” for kids 10 and under.
The shootout competition consists of one goalie and one shooter per franchise.
“I have full confidence that William and Zach will win,” said Max Ortolani, 27, who was hired this past September by the Panthers as the IceDen director.
“At that age, it’s hard to find kids who are really passionate about hockey. But I know William is hungry, and Zach speaks softly but carries a big stick.”
This is the first year the Panthers have competed in the tournament, and it is yet another sign of the progress the franchise has made in its efforts to promote hockey in the South Florida area.
So far, the Junior Panthers program 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.
Gostisbehere, the son of a professional Jai-Alai player from France, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he’s grateful for the Junior Panthers program.
“I hold them close to my heart,” he said. “They’re a big part of my hockey career.
“People ask me where I’m from, and whether I’m from Canada. I say I’m from South Florida, and I get a look.”
The Panthers hope that those odd looks will one day be a thing of the past. The Panthers’ practice facility, the IceDen, recently partnered with the South Florida Hockey Academy, which is run by former Panthers players Radek Dvorak, Olli Jokinen, Tomas Vokoun and Ed Jovanovski.
“Our promise is to take players’ games to the next level,” reads the SFHA website.
For now, the two kids with the big stage and the opportunity to elevate their games are Shield and Anderson.
Qualifying for Tampa was a noteworthy accomplishment as they beat out other goalies and shooters at the IceDen, and then paired up to defeat duos from the other five South Florida skating rinks.
The other finalists and their home rinks: goalie Logan Winters and shooter Jack Mackey (Palm Beach Ice Works); goalie Jensen Carlstrom and shooter Kenny Carpenter (Palm Beach Skate Zone); goalie Tyler Mundie and shooter Brady Vallee (Glacier Ice & Snow Arena); goalie Luke Moforis and shooter Harrison Hecker (Pines Ice Arena); and goalie Zackeal Eldridge and shooter Daniel Albis (Kendall Ice Arena).
Shield is big for his age — 5-2 and 115 pounds — which comes in handy as a goalie. He also has roots in the game since his father, David, played hockey as a youth in Wisconsin.
Shield likes the coaching that his son is receiving.
“The Junior Panthers have a goalie coach [Neil Scancerella], and he’s on the ice with Zach every practice,” David Shield said of his son, whose favorite NHL goalie is Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. “It’s nothing short of phenomenal how much Zach has improved in the past year.”
Anderson, who is 4-6 and 82 pounds, is a good puck-handler, according to his father, Jeff, who played hockey while growing up in Canada.
“From the time he was in diapers, I put a stick in his hands,” Jeff Anderson said. “He played street hockey on the sidewalk in front of our house, and he’s never put the stick down.
“When he’s not on the ice, he puts on roller blades, and he has two nets in our circular driveway. He practices about 15 to 20 hours per week. He’ll even watch YouTube highlights and then go back outside to emulate what the pros do.”
Come Jan. 26, Anderson and Shield hope to look like younger versions of Jagr and Price.