Blake Christensen's hockey career started here, on this ice.
He was 3 1/2 years old at the time, maybe 4, when he first stepped onto the rinks at Coral Springs' Incredible Ice — known today as the Panthers' IceDen — wearing full hockey gear. Youth hockey games followed.
Fast forward almost two decades, and here is he again, skating and slashing his way on the ice playing the sport he loves.
This time, though, it was as a tryout player as part of the Florida Panthers' development camp, which ended Friday with a team scrimmage.
For four days, Christensen went through drills, shared a locker room and competed with the Panthers' top prospects.
Things came full circle for the 4-year-old inside of him.
"It's awesome. It's pretty crazy to think about it. When I was growing up, I was always on the junior Panthers teams. To be out here competing with the guys that were drafted and that are going to be playing with the organization is almost a dream come true."
He wasn't the only Florida native among the 33 players on the roster this week, though. Fellow tryout player Zach Solow is from Naples, and Panthers 2018 third-round pick Logan Hustko is from Tampa. A fourth player, seventh-round pick Cole Krygier, was born in Orlando while his dad played for the Orlando Solar Bears but has little connection to the state.
Panthers general manager Dale Tallon is hoping it's a sign of the changing times, that interest in hockey is growing in the state and will continue to grow.
"We want to expand the rinks and expand the opportunities for kids to play this great game," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "Having these four kids at our camp really speaks volumes and of course there have been some good picks in the last few years from Florida. It's only going to get deeper. It's great for the game. It's great for our franchise."
Christensen has noticed the changes. The 22-year-old forward heading into his junior year at American International College in Massachusetts said there came a time growing up in South Florida that aspiring hockey players would have to leave the state if they wanted their careers to progress. He and his family moved to Michigan before he started high school.
"Now," Christensen said, "it seems like it's changing because there are more teams, there's more competition, more opportunities down here."
Hustko agrees. He also went to high school in Michigan after growing up in Florida and just finished his freshman year at Boston College. His parents bought a house in Longboat Key in Sarasota about five years ago, and he comes back to the state during the summer. His favorite player growing up was former Tampa Bay Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier.
"It's so cool how the game is growing," Hustko said. "... Hockey's a great game. It's really cool seeing hockey players coming out of everywhere now."
Christensen and Hustko both hope to add to a growing group of NHL standouts from the Sunshine State, a list that includes, among others, Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, 2012 third-round pick from Pembroke Pines; Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun, a Boca Raton native who started 118 games during the last two years; and winger Dan Hinote, a Leesburg native who played 503 games in the NHL during his nine-year career with the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues from 2000-2009.
"The end goal is to play in the National Hockey League," Christensen said. "I'm going to do everything I can to do as well as I can in college and see what happens."
The Panthers closed development camp Friday with a intrasquad scrimmage, with teams divided up based on
The Red team — led by prospects Serron Noel, Hutsko and Jonathan Ang — won 2-0 against the Blue team, which boasted each of the Panthers' last two first-round picks in Grigori Denisenko and Owen Tippett. Center Gustaf Westlund and defenseman Joseph Gareffa, both camp tryout players, scored goals.
"I think they enjoyed themselves," said Geordie Kinnear, the head coach of the Panthers' AHL affiliate Springfield Thunderbirds in Massachusetts. "They learned a lot of concepts, a lot of video sessions, a lot of different things, but you could tell they were hungry to play."