Seeing "Florida Man" in a headline generally prepares the reader for an off-the-wall Internet tale, but get used to the phrase "Florida NHLer," because they're on the rise. Jakob Chychrun and Shayne Gostisbehere are two notable young stars from the Sunshine State, while Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Andrew Peeke is getting a chance on the big stage at the world juniors right now. Heck, Peeke isn't even the only Florida-born defenseman on the team this year - Quinn Hughes hails from Orlando.
Peeke, who was born and raised in Parkland, caught the hockey bug early thanks to the NHL's Panthers playing a short drive away in Sunrise.
“I had the Panthers 15 minutes away from me, so being able to go to the rink was awesome," he said. "Growing up there, I take pride in how it’s grown and seeing the players that are coming out of there.”
In the early days, classic Panthers such as Pavel Bure and Ed Jovanovski were Peeke's favorites, but more recently he has tried to tailor his game after Aaron Ekblad. Given that both players have size and a two-way game, Peeke is on the right track with his mentor.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound blueliner played in Florida until he was 14, at which point he headed up to Connecticut to play for Selects Academy, an elite program that counts Gostisbehere and St. Louis Blues center Wade Megan as alumni. While Connecticut gave Peeke a great hockey experience for three years, it also took him out of the tropical environs of his home state. But even the Northeast couldn't prepare him for the weather at his next stop, as he move to Green Bay to play for the USHL's Gamblers.
"Green Bay was something crazy, waking up to minus-30," Peeke said. "That was tough on me.”
Now in his sophomore season with the NCAA's Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Peeke is on pace for a modest increase in points since his freshman year, when he potted 14 points in 40 games. He'll be part of a small group players in school history who can claim to have played in both Hockey East and the Big Ten for the Irish, who switched conferences over the summer, and that first-year experience went a long way towards his overall development.
“It was awesome," he said. "The first month or so I struggled in the transition from USHL to college, but once I got my feet under me and got my confidence up it was awesome. We made a great run and we were a really close team.”
And attending the legendary university has given Peeke the opportunity to really get into the overall sporting scene last year.
“I went to football games, basketball, soccer, lacrosse...I pretty much went to everything," Peeke said. "Athletes are really close there, so you always want to support each other’s teams.”
Peeke also played baseball before hockey took over his life, and his summer school classes at Notre Dame were filled with players from the baseball and football teams.
Now, he's getting a crash-course in elite hockey at the world juniors. Peeke opened the tournament in Buffalo on a pairing with Mikey Anderson, the Los Angeles Kings pick who skates for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Anderson plays a subtle and effective defensive game, so the Americans can feel confident in their back end when that pairing is on the ice. One of the reasons Team USA is a favorite to medal again this year is because of the American blueline corps, which boasts both defensive efficiency and slick puckmovers such as Hughes and Calgary pick Adam Fox. For Peeke, taking his game to the next level will require an upping of his offensive game. Over the summer, he worked on getting more explosive and quicker overall.
"In the weight room I’m trying to get quicker in my first three strides on the ice," he said. "Translating that over into getting quicker in general, building more muscle and losing body fat.”
Given that Columbus already has two dynamite defensemen in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, Peeke will be able to take his time developing. But once he completes his college career and turns pro, there's a lot of potential in the Florida native to become a solid NHLer. But for now, he's got world junior gold to shoot for.