By Stephanie Costolo Photos By Bob Thompson – Thompson Brand Images & Gordie Zimmerman
In the current state of seemingly never-ending growth and development here in Wesley Chapel, one of the more popular topics people are buzzing about seems to be the ice rink being built off State Road 56. Not only ice hockey and figure skating fans, but people from all interest groups are keeping an eye on the development of this ice rink. Many reasons can be attributed to this; the fervor for Tampa Bay Lightning seems to be at a record high, sparking a high level of interest in youth ice hockey around Florida; it’s also going to be the largest ice rink in the Southeast of the United States—laying down a whopping five ice sheets, one Olympic-sized rink, 3 NHL sized rinks, and one mini-rink with adjoining party rooms. One of the NHL sized rinks can also be used as a 17,000-square-foot multi-sports pad, which can be used for basketball, volleyball, indoor arena football, soccer, tennis, lacrosse, street hockey and roller hockey, etc. Because of the sheer size, NHL teams, college teams, and world-class tournaments and camps are all eyeballing Florida Hospital Center Ice as a destination of choice.
Taking into account the enormous size and amount of planning it must take to materialize something of this scale, I can’t help but wonder about the individual behind the madness. Maybe I’m not hanging in the right circles, but people in my everyday life don’t go about spearheading multi-million dollar projects and coinciding local economic boom as part of their daily to-do list. How does the idea of doing something on this scale become a reality? What’s the secret sauce? Resident Magazine sat down with Gordie Zimmermann, one of the owners and developers of Florida Hospital Center Ice, to take a peek into the world of big-time developments.
Soft-spoken and polite, Gordie Zimmermann was warm and welcoming when we met him in the office park behind the Mercedes Dealership on State Road 56. After introductions, we immediately grabbed a couple of hardhats and headed over to the complex for a tour. As we walked through the expansive space, construction workers were buzzing about, forklifts were zipping this way and that way, and the main focus of that particular moment was HVAC installation; the scene was busy with production. The speed at which everything is coming together keeps Gordie and his team plenty busy. At the moment, the complex is still a pretty open space, so we could see from one end to the other and could identify where each sheet of ice will be laid out. It’s pretty amazing to watch something come together that will be a space for kids, teens, and adults alike to chase their dreams and create memories for decades to come.
RM (Resident Magazine)- Tell me about yourself. What did you want to be as a child, and where did you grow up?
GZ (Gordie Zimmermann)- My parents are from Germany and immigrated to Canada, which is where I grew up. My dad was a boxer, and after his boxing career, my parents decided to have 3 children. They named me after the hockey player, Gordie Howe, and I started playing hockey when I was about three or four. As a Canadian, your dream is to become a hockey player; I started playing recreational hockey, and then I got into travel hockey and eventually junior hockey up in Ontario. I spent most of my youth and young adult life living just outside of Toronto in a place called Oshawa.
My dad worked for General Motors in Canada, and I actually worked there for a brief stint before taking a leave of absence to move to Florida when the (Tampa Bay) Lightning came down here in 1992. When the Lightning were planning to come to Tampa, I was watching that closely and thought, ‘oh, my gosh, they have, like, one ice sheet in Tampa’-the Clearwater Ice Area in Clearwater. There was a story in a Toronto newspaper where the captain of the Maple Leafs twisted his knee on the practice facility (in Clearwater); the article said that it was really hot out and the ice was not
where it needed to be. I thought, ‘my gosh, an NHL team with only one option.’ So, that’s what gave me the idea to come down and build ice rinks in Florida.
RM- How did you transition from working at General Motors to building ice rinks?
GZ- I had just been around ice rinks my whole life and knew quite a bit about them. I had done part time work at rinks, helping Rink Managers do their thing, and shoveling snow off the ice. It was always an interest; it’s kind of where I grew up.
RM- Did you have a building background when you moved to Florida?
GZ- My brother was a masonry contractor, and I worked in that business, called Zimmermann Masonry. I did that a little on the side while I was working at General
Motors, and our families built cottages and projects like that, so we did have a background in building. When I came down here, I actually worked for a development group as a project manager for almost 8 years. During that same time frame, we developed and designed the ice rink in Brandon.
RM- Tell me about your family.
GZ- Karrin, my significant other, and I live here in Wesley Chapel in Seven Oaks with our three boys. Luke is the oldest, 18. Spencer is 17, and Adam is the youngest, 16. All three of them have grown up playing hockey from a very young age, and they’ve all developed into quite the young hockey players. Hockey is obviously a big part of our life and Karrin is also a big hockey fan.
RM- What does the first hour or two of your day look like?
GZ- When I get up in the morning it’s usually 6 o’clock, and I’ll spend an hour or so on the computer just checking emails. Sometimes phone calls because construction people are off and running quickly in the morning. I also support getting the kids to school, and then I hit the office.
RM- To what can you attribute in getting to this level of success?
GZ- This level of success takes a real team of people. My business partner, George Mitchell is an instrumental igniter to make this thing happen. It’s a big undertaking, to support a private venture (like this). Florida Hospital, our naming partner has provided a solid foundation for years to come. We have Kevin Wolter as our facility General Manager, who has been a huge part in helping us put the project sourcing together. In addition, James Mitchell, Program Manager of sponsorship and adverstising, and Shari Trotter Klutz, our Executive Skating Director have brought so much to
the project and greatful to have their experience and knowledge. More staff will be added soon to support our Building Operations and Programs.
It’s been a lot of research. I’ve been in the business, yet the technology has changed, so every day is something new and requires research for systems in the building, our programs, new concepts, and new tools.
RM- Do you have advice for people who want to start a business?
GZ- Absolutely. I’m still learning a lot everyday with my business partner, George; he’s been a mentor to me. I think having a good mentor is a critical path; you can’t know everything. Having good people around you is key. I look at Jeff Vinik as someone else (who’s a mentor) and the way he operates the Lightning and that whole business. It’s a world-class operation, and he’s brought in the best people. The key is to surround yourself with knowledgeable, good people.
RM- What is the first thing that comes to your mind when I say the word ‘dreams’?
GZ- Never stop dreaming. A lot of people have said that I’m not going to ever do this. There were people betting that this would never commence. I don’t ever look back. You’ve got to keep moving forward. So dreams are something you’ve got to go by, for sure, because this was a dream; it’s always been a dream to build a grand scale, world-class facility. And here we are, we’re doing it.
RM- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
GZ- Your family is number one. In doing that, you build a solid foundation to do the things you want to do (professionally). I’ve worked for somebody before who never spent time with their family, and I never wanted to be that person. Family is key.
RM- Favorite sports team?
GZ- I have had some of the greatest moments watching hockey right here, in Tampa. Tampa Bay Lightning, for sure.
RM- What’s the last book you read or are reading?
GZ- I read the Phil Esposito autobiography recently. I know a lot of the people that he talks about in the book and some of the story, so that was really interesting.
RM- Tell me a little about coaching the Wiregrass High School ice hockey team.
GZ- I actually coached Plant High School in South Tampa back in 1999. Wiregrass High School asked me if I was interested because Luke, my oldest, was coming in the following year and, since I had a background with hockey, they thought I might be somebody good to coach the team. It’s been a blast. We had our tryouts last week for this fall 2016/17 season, and we’ve got some new players that are coming to the table who are really talented. Last year we finished in the final four, and this year I think we have a contending team to possibly go to states and maybe Nationals. It’s exciting. We’ve had some scouts from a major junior team come to our games. Last year, Adam, my youngest, was scouted for a major junior team in Canada and is now a future prospect. We’re going to have high school hockey games during the season at Florida Hospital Center Ice, and this will be our home practice rink. Currently, we have about five high school teams planning to make this their home rink.
RM- When you’re not building ice rinks, what do you do for fun?
GZ- I love playing the guitar and hanging with our dogs. Karrin and I used to go to a lot of concerts, but we’ve been so busy with the boys, it’s hard to get to do that. The last concert we went to was Luke Bryan. We both love music, and I used to play in a basement band when I was younger.
RM- What kind of music do you play?
GZ- Back then, we played Rolling Stones and music like that, but now I like country music. It kind of shifted, I guess; even my son who is 16 loves country music.
RM- Name the best place that you’ve ever traveled.
GZ- I think we take it for granted that Florida is where we live, but it’s really a place that I used to love to travel to when I lived in Canada. Germany, just because all of my ancestors are from there makes it kind of a neat place to visit. I like going to a lot of big cities like Chicago and New York. I love driving into a new big city and seeing the skyline, I think that’s really cool. The Klausen Pass in Switzerland was probably the best spot. I was driving a big Mercedes that we rented, and I’m going down this road where if you fall, you’re a goner. There was a hurd of cows bumping into our car trying to push us off the road; we’re like ten thousand feet up in the air, and there’s a big cow right beside you hitting the car.
RM- Do you have a favorite hangout spot here in town?
GZ- We frequent the Shops at Wiregrass or Tampa Premium Outlets quite a bit, dinner or a refresher at one of the local pubs or new restaurants.
RM- What music was playing the last time you drove somewhere?
GZ- That was this morning, and I was listening to Led Zeppelin.
RM- If you could put a billboard up and have it say anything at all, what would it say and where would you put it?
GZ- “Be happy.” I would put it right on the interstate (laughs).
RM- What is your passion?
GZ- I have a lot of passions, really. I like to build things. I like sporting events. That excitement that comes around when the Lightning was contending for the Stanley Cup and to be in that atmosphere around people who are enjoying themselves, I think is a really cool thing. I’ve been to a lot of big sporting events, whether it was World Cup soccer or Stanley Cup games, and it’s a lot of fun.
RM- Thirty years from now, what do you want to be remembered for; what legacy do you want to leave?
GZ- When I walk into the Brandon facility 19 years after building it, I get the goose bumps watching little kids play hockey and figure skate.Seeing them able to do that, and knowing there’s another facility, Florida Hospital Center Ice, that we’re doing for the kids is a big part of it. I think living in Germany for 3 months, Canada for most of my youth and young adult age, and the US (Florida) since 1994, I really got to see three successful countries in a personal way and how these nations compare. In Germany, I noticed that there were a lot of sports facilities for kids. When I went to Canada, there weren’t as many, but they had a lot of parks. When I came to the US, I didn’t see as many facilities available. I thought, ‘my gosh, what are the kids going to do?’ And I wondered where everybody was going for sports and how far many travelled. So, that’s really the big thing about this building—having something that offers an up-and-coming sport and enjoyment for community members is a really big part of it.
RM- Why did you choose to build this rink in Wesley Chapel?
GZ- Wesley Chapel is one of the fastest growing communities in Florida, maybe even in the US. The demographics are right and the access was the best in Florida with I-275 and I-75 so close, and 19 being attached to State Road 54/56 and a new extension to HWY 301 coming together here. We studied all of that. Our feasibility study came back and pointed us to Wesley Chapel as a great area to introduce a project like this. We did a lot of research.
RM- When will the Florida Hospital Center Ice open its doors to the public?
GZ- We are targeting late fall of this year. I can’t say an exact date because we have to mechanically commission this building, and that’s about a six-week commissioning process to create the right atmosphere and conditions for making ice.
RM- How many jobs will this bring to the area?
GZ- I can say in construction, we’ve already created probably three to four hundred jobs. In the facility operations, we will have about 20 full-time staff and roughly thirty to forty part timers. The restaurant will probably have about fifteen to twenty people on shift work and the Pro Shop will have about ten, but we have leased those out.
RM- What added Economic Development will the rink bring into Wesley Chapel and New Tampa?
GZ- A facility of this nature will probably utilize somewhere around ten to fifteen hotels during a big event and has spawned several new hotel projects . We’ve already booked some of those events, and we’ve been involved with the tourism director for Pasco County and also the sports commision director of Hillsborough County. Both of them are promoting the facility because of the hotel and regional impact. This building has become world recognized as a training center for elite athletes and a developmental center for future athletes. Florida Hospital’s involvement has really ignited awareness with their sports performance and injury prevention programs. Dr. Barbara Morris of Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel will lead the Sports Perforamce program at Florida Hospital Center Ice.
RM- Tell me about the programs that will be available.
GZ- Kids can come into our building at ages three and four and register in developmental skating programs, which is ‘learn to skate’ to play, or ‘learn to skate’ to play hockey. Our Learn to Skate school will teach them in seven-week progressions. We will schedule a lot of camps and clinics along the way, whether it’s a holiday clinic or summer camp, and they’ll teach kids at all levels of hockey and figure skating. So, for a three-year-old or all the way up to a senior citizen, you can use our facility.
We will also schedule several annual tournaments, competitions, camps and programs to support local, regional, national and international participants and team. We have an academy introduction that’s going to be a world-recognized hockey and figure skating program. We’ve had a lot of interest in that, and Saddlebrook Resort is working with us to be one component of that academy. They will board some of the international students and provide schooling in Saddlebrook, and then shuttle them over to practice at the rink. We’re also working with Saddlebrook on some of the big camps like the V-Red Prospects camp. It’s a major junior hockey camp, and this will be the first time the program ever comes to Florida. Additionally, because of the size of the building, we are able to do state high school championships here, nationals for the adults and World Selects are scheduled in May. Some really big National level events will happen here.
RM- What other uses of the space are being discussed?
GZ- I’ve actually met with Sheriff Chris Nocco, and they love the idea of the building being here for several reasons. Obviously, it gets kids off the street and gives them something to do. We also talked about the K-9 training coming in and doing a few shows for us here. We’ve discussed a possible staging area if there ever was an emergency, that he could provide his staff to set up base out of this building; and so we have it wired for a generator.
RM- Is it true that this will be the state of Florida’s largest ice rink?
GZ- This will be the largest ice rink in the South of the US. There’s a couple of three pad rinks in Florida now—one in Fort Myers and one in Coral Springs. This one actually adds another whole pad, the off-ice training area and the mini-pad.
RM- Any word on NHL teams coming to use the facility to practice?
GZ- Saddlebrook has actually spoken to four or five NHL teams, so that when they come to town, they can stay there and practice here. When I was running the Brandon facility, at one time we had four different NHL teams in the building practicing in a single day. The Lightning are planning several programs with us in terms of camps and clinics for kids following their Lightning Made initiative. There is a strong possibility either doing the rookie camp or having a training camp here in the near future. It’s the perfect facility for that kind of event with the ancillary facilities provided at Florida Hospital Center Ice.
RM- What causes does the Florida Hospital Center Ice support?
GZ- “Opportunity to Play.” The Mitchell family established this program to help kids who may not be able to afford a sport. For example, hockey requires a lot of equipment, and we would like to see that develop as we build the facility. We’re going to have events, like Skate for Hope, supporting Breast cancer, and there are some other programs we’re working on for veterans and handicapped teams & individuals. Gordie Zimmermann knew athletes in the area needed another option. He knew he could make that option possible, and when the timing was right he made it happen. With a big heart, the support of his business partner, and his family by his side, the decision to build one of the biggest ice rinks in the southeast of the Unites States was made. So, what makes someone do big things? Things that many of us would say are impossible or couldn’t be done? Dreams. And Gordie Zimmermann had a big one. He wanted to one day see an ice rink that could do it all. He is now watching his dream become reality, brick by brick, by his experiences, motivation, commitment, and drive. Much like the athletes who come through those doors and step onto the rink, he knows that in order to make your dreams happen, you need to put together a strong support team and have faith in yourself, faith in your abilities, and faith that when the time comes, you’ll know when to make your move.