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Florida Has Turned into a Hotbed of Talent for U.S. Rosters

By Sean Shapiro , 12/30/23, 2:45PM EST


Gavin Brindley, Seamus Casey, Jacob Fowler and Sam Hillebrandt all have ties to the Sunshine State

On June 24, 1993, John Vanbiesbrouck was the first player taken in the NHL Expansion Draft by the Florida Panthers.

Over the next five seasons, Vanbiesbrouck was part of a Panthers franchise that helped introduce hockey and grow the sport in the southeast. That included a Cinderella run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, where rats rained down throughout the postseason and inspired a generation of future hockey players. 

Thirty years later, there are now close to 20,000 registered players with USA Hockey in Florida, including close to 10,000 at the youth levels. 

John Vanbiesbrouck playing for the Florida Panthers

Therefore, it’s fitting that a team built by Vanbiesbrouck — serving as the general manager for Team USA at the 2024 IIHF World Junior Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden — has a distinct Florida feeling to it. 

Gavin Brindley, Seamus Casey and Jacob Fowler were all born in Florida and played their youth hockey there. Sam Hillebrandt wasn’t born in Florida, but he moved there when he was a teenager and played two formative seasons in the Sunshine State before going to the play for Barrie.

Brindley, Casey and Fowler were teammates on the Florida Alliance 16U AAA team during the 2019-20 season. In 15 games, Brindley had 42 points, Casey had 29 as a defenseman and Fowler posted a .932 save percentage in net. 

They’re teammates now again this winter, only now they’ll be wearing red, white and blue for the U.S. National Junior Team.

Brindley (left), Fowler (center), Casey (right)

Fowler (left), Brindley (right)

“It brings back a lot of memories of us getting together early in the morning and on Sundays for practices,” Brindley said. “It’s kind of the same stuff, like staying on the ice and just messing around with Fowls in the net. It's been awesome and obviously it doesn’t happen too often to have that past history from one team.”

Even though they grew up in a much warmer climate, Brindley, Casey and Fowler said they were always drawn to the ice. 

Brindley’s dad, Ryan Brindley, played in the ECHL for the Florida Everblades and later coached that Florida Alliance team. Casey lived in the same neighborhood, and the two struck a friendship over street hockey. 

“We lived in a neighborhood that was basically all snowbirds and we were the two oddball kids playing street hockey,” Casey said. “We’d spend hours playing outside, you could do that all year round in Florida, so we really became friends through that.”

Fowler got to know Brindley and Casey when he was 7-years-old and was invited to play in a tournament. The team needed a goalie, and it was a key moment for an athlete who the Montreal Canadiens drafted 12 years later. 

“I was still kind of doing half and half, goalie and skater, I wasn’t sure what I was going to pursue for sure,” Fowler said. “And I wasn’t going to make that team as a skater, so I’ve played goalie ever since and the rest is history.” 

Casey said sometimes he would play against Fowler, and sometimes he’d play with him, which was more fun of an experience. 

“Coming together on those teams was so special because we all played against each other in the state growing up,” Casey said. “We’d have this rivalry with Jacob’s team for like half the season and then we’d come together in the other half of the season. It was always fun.”

Hillebrandt was born in Michigan and played youth hockey there, but he moved to Florida when he was 16 after his dad was transferred for work. He found a spot on the Florida Alliance, the same organization Brindley, Casey and Fowler played for, and from there his hockey career took off. 

“It was different, a lot more travel compared to Michigan, and it was all about finding as much ice as you can,” Hillebrandt said. “You’d have some flights and things like that up north to play, but the hockey was better than you would have thought when you moved from a place like Michigan to Florida.”

That’s the key point that Florida natives Brindley, Casey and Fowler wanted to reiterate. Hockey in Florida is alive and well, and it can provide a path to a larger future within the sport. 

“It is a point of pride,” Brindley said. “You don’t think about it too much, but we always took pride in going up and beating teams from Michigan and the Northeast. We were happy to be the kids from Florida that beat those so-called traditional powers and states.”

Of the 25 players on the roster, there are more players with Florida ties than other states outside of Minnesota and Michigan. 

Not bad for a state whose nickname is the farthest thing from ice. 

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc

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