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Junior Gold: Another hockey program in Minnesota. In Florida, that’s all they got.

On Feb. 14, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida was the scene of what is now the country’s largest and most devastating high school shooting, which left 17 Stoneman Douglas students and staff killed.

Two victims in the shooting directly affected the high school’s boys hockey team. One of those people was Joaquin Oliver, a close friend and fan of the team. Another was Jaime Guttenberg, the younger sister of junior varsity player Jesse Guttenberg.

Now, 11 days after the horrific events of Valentine’s Day at their school, what was supposed to be a day of happiness and love which turned to a day of horror and sadness for Stoneman Douglas students, the hockey team now has something positive they can share about their school.

The fourth-seeded hockey team became Florida’s state champions in two upset matches, winning against top seeded East Lake 3-1 in a Sunday morning semifinal game in Fort Myers, followed by another win against Tampa Jesuit 7-4 in an afternoon final faceoff.

For the Eagles, this achievement was all for Oliver, Guttenberg and the 15 other victims killed in the shooting just a week and a half earlier. Some Stoneman Douglas players even dyed their hair yellow in honor of Oliver, known for his yellow-dyed hair.

“[We were] pretty much fighting for the 17 that passed away out here,” player Matthew Horowitz told CBS affiliate WINK-TV.

While here in Minnesota, hockey is a huge sport and pretty much every high school in this state has a hockey team, Florida is a little different.

Hockey is not a sport sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), their equivalent of our Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). It’s rather a club sport, sponsored by the USA Hockey-affiliated Florida Scholastic Hockey League (FSHL) and Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida (SAHOF).

Both of those leagues together have two conferences in the state: the Lighting and the Panther conference. The Lightning conference consists of schools in the Tampa Bay area, named after Tampa Bay’s NHL team of the same name. The Panther conference consists of schools in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the rest of the South Florida area. Their namesake is Miami’s NHL team of the same name.

Since the FHSAA does not sanction hockey as a sport in Florida high schools, this is the only way high school hockey players in the state can play the sport that they love.

“I think this is great for high school hockey in Florida,” an online testimonial on the Lightning Conference website said. “To have such a great organization backing high school hockey will be great for all participants.”

The SAHOF and FSHL seasons start in September and comes to a close in February, with the champions from each conference cumulating together to play a state championship matchup. Stoneman Douglas represented the Panther conference, while Tampa’s Jesuit High School represented the Lightning conference.

With Stoneman Douglas winning the championship game, they now represent Florida in the USA Hockey High School National Championship, which will be hosted right here in Minnesota at the Plymouth Ice Center next month.

In our state, Minnesota Hockey oversees the youth and amateur hockey programs in the state of Minnesota and is directly affiliated with USA Hockey. They are Minnesota’s equivalent of the SAHOF and FSHL. The Burnsville Hockey Club, our affiliate with Minnesota Hockey, is where lots of Burnsville High School students play hockey under their Junior Gold program.

While MSHSL teams do not take part in the USA Hockey national championship game, our state’s Junior Gold teams do. Some find the Junior Gold program in Minnesota as a program that players can go to if they can’t make their high school varsity teams, but some players join a Junior Gold program if they just want to play hockey for the aspect of the love of the sport instead of competition and trying to go Division I in college.

“Junior Gold has given me a chance to play with friends that I wouldn’t get to play with if it was just varsity,” said Blake Hanegraaf, a BHS senior and Junior Gold B player, “and those friends have made me who I am today.”

Hanegraaf also noted that he plays Junior Gold over varsity because it’s not as huge of a time commitment as varsity is, and he can still work and make money during the season. Junior Gold is split up into three different categories: A, B and 16. Burnsville’s hockey club has a B and a 16 team.

Burnsville’s Junior Gold B, team photo.

Junior Gold can also teach Minnesotan high school hockey players some tough life lessons as well.

“I think that Junior Gold has taught me that I have to fight for what I want, and that I have to fight hard for it,” said Lucas Lesser, a BHS junior and Junior Gold 16 player, “because Junior Gold is a lot more physical than people may think.”

Burnsville, along with the rest of the state’s Junior Gold teams, just finished off their season this weekend, and are in the beginning stages of playoffs, on the road to nationals. Burnsville’s Junior Gold 16 team plays Saturday at 2 p.m. at the National Sports Center’s Schwan’s Super Rink against the winner of Friday’s St. Thomas Academy versus Wayzata matchup. Burnsville then, in turn, has to win one more game before making it to state, where they can be eligible for nationals.

As far as our B team goes, they play Thursday night at 8:20 p.m. at the Schwan’s Super Rink against the winner of Wednesday night’s Buffalo-Eastview matchup. They would also then have to win one more game before going to the state tournament, where they can go to nationals as well.

“Winning is a lot of fun and we’ve got to do that a lot this year, which is awesome,” said Hanegraaf, “and hopefully we can continue to do that through playoffs.”