ELLENTON, Fla. – The trophy showcase at Ellenton Ice and Sports in Ellenton, Fla. looks like something that could be on display at any major NHL event.
Chris Frontiero organized the New Frontier Hockey League, an adult organization at Ellenton made up of six teams who play a hockey schedule that is set up to rival that of the NHL. There are two divisions, playoffs, and five-game finals that result in winning the New Frontier Cup, a large trophy somewhat reminiscent of the Stanley Cup with a large bowl on top and several panels containing the members of the winning team. In addition, there are trophies for the two conference champions, the All-Star most valuable player, the championship MVP, and for the team with the best regular season record.
It’s quite impressive for a seven-year-old league that has endured its ups and downs, but is on steady footing and now challenging other nearby ice rinks to field similar leagues that could possibly lead to a four-game tournament between the champions of each league. Frontiero has targeted nearby Brandon, Fort Myers, and Oldsmar – all of which have stellar adult programs – as leagues he’d like to participate.
Players in the New Frontier Hockey League (NFHL) range from age 21 and up, and when it was started seven years ago, it was the first of its kind in Florida, an area that is only now getting a fascination for hockey outside of the niche group of northern transplants. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship added to the interest, and the NFHL has worked with the Lightning to secure a night at the St.Pete Times Forum – home of the Lightning – to host its All-Star Game on March 4. Players will receive personal sweaters that they can keep, and the whole game will be as close to NHL as possible.
The league begins play in mid-September with a pre-season, same as the NHL. There is one game per week and 24 games total. The schedule coincides with the end of the NHL regular season and the Frontier Cup finals are set to end a week before the Stanley Cup finals.
Part of the reason the playoffs are set to end before the start of the Stanley Cup finals is the success of the Lightning two years ago drew players off the ice and towards their television sets. It’s just a sign of the advancement of hockey in Florida.
"Every hockey season was always 11 games and nobody kept records or track of anything,’’ Frontiero said. "I wanted a league as similar as I could to the NHL and I think we accomplished that.’’
Records are meticulously kept and put onto the league web site as soon as each game is over. Players can not only track other games, but also leading scorers. The organization is such that many players who played in the inaugural season seven years ago are still participating.
Frontiero, who grew up in Massachusetts and is an avid fan of the Boston Bruins, said he’d never seen a league like this one.
He’s convinced that if the players are willing to make a full commitment, the league can continue to grow, and he still has his sights set on what he calls the "Battle of the Rinks,’’ against the other local leagues.
He said it might take a few years to put a league that large together. The distances between the four rinks Frontiero has proposed could be a challenge, but he said it shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to the sport.
"People will go a long way to play hockey,’’ Frontiero said. "Hockey players love the game and will go anywhere.’’
The games themselves are quite competitive. In last year’s final, the Cyclones beat the Blues on a disputed call in the fifth and deciding game of the finals. Frontiero said the games aren’t out of control, but there are bragging rights on the line that could become even more intense if the other rinks decide to take part.
For now Frontiero is just trying to get his own league growing faster each year. He put up more than $5,000 of his own money to build the trophies. Like those in the NHL, they are awarded to each member of the winning team for one day during the summer.
The captain is in charge of its safety, but like the Stanley Cup, the New Frontier Cup has its own interesting history. Players have eaten and drank from it, let their children sit in it, and undisclosed other things.
It’s the kind of tradition Frontiero is hoping to build