OLDSMAR – Al Nicoli has been coaching and playing ice hockey for 48 years. From the frozen ponds of Canada, he has made his way here to be the hockey director at the Tampa Bay Skating Academy.
But he still looks as tough as he did as a player back in college in Canada. That’s as far as his playing career went.
Ice hockey is an interesting sport. You have people who score, people who defend, people who defend their friends and throw punches whenever necessary. Winning is big – being a wimp is not.
Nicoli was a defenseman and while he never made it as a professional, he still plays in two leagues at the TBSA. He doesn’t break his fists on guys faces anymore, but back in the day, he was known as a tough guy. Nobody skated with their head down when Nicoli was on the ice wearing a different colored uniform.
“We didn’t wear helmets when I played,” Nicoli said after refereeing a game at the TBSA on a recent Sunday. “We took care of our own. We were tougher back when I played. Anytime anything needed to be taken care of, they looked at me.”
“I took care of it. I didn’t win all of my fights, but I never got beaten up. I got it done, let’s say that.”
Nicoli had talent. He was able to play college and knew he wasn’t going any further. When asked why he never went professional and what he lacked, he was simple and to the point.
“I didn’t have skill,” he said. “That’s what was missing.”
Today, Nicoli remains an avid fan of the National Hockey League. He grew up worshiping the Toronto Maple Leafs as well as Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins. Orr – a defenseman who was fast enough to score – changed the game in ways that few athletes in any sport ever have. That’s who Nicoli wanted to be, unless the Bruins were playing his Maple Leafs. Nicoli celebrated at Maple Leaf Gardens when Toronto won its last Stanley Cup way back in 1967.
Since then, he got into coaching. In 2003, he had an opportunity to move to Florida. He had family in Largo and hockey was just starting to gain a foothold in West Florida. He left the frozen lakes for the Sunshine State and never has any regrets.
He’s been a referee for 28 years now and also coordinates the kids programs and other leagues. He is one of the most recognizable figures at the TBSA.
One thing, though. No one from the state of Florida has ever reached the NHL. Nicoli thinks he knows why and he’d like the first to come from the TBSA.
“There needs to be more intensity in the game in Florida,” Nicoli said. “It costs a lot to play hockey, so that is a problem. The biggest problem in Florida, and everywhere, is that kids just don’t want to do anything except stay at home and play with video games and watch television. Kids don’t go outside like we used to. When I was learning hockey, we weren’t allowed to go inside. Kids just aren’t as involved anymore. But we have talent here. Someone is going to make it.’’