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By Andrew Sodergren – Naples Daily News

Daniel Echeverri wasn’t sure he’d have a future in hockey six years ago.

But a stint with the Junior Everblades changed his outlook substantially.

Now he’s winning gold medals for his home country, Colombia. Echeverri scored 10 goals and tallied eight assists in Colombia’s recent victory at the Pan-American Ice Hockey Games. In six games, Colombia went 5-1, with the only loss coming to Mexico early in the tournament. The Colombians rebounded to defeat Mexico 3-2 in the championship game, repeating as champions. Last year’s victory in the Pan-Am Ice Hockey Games was the country’s first-ever tournament victory in hockey. Echeverri also played a key role in that win.

“Ice hockey isn’t very big in Colombia,” Echeverri said. “They’re more into roller hockey. It’s really nice starting something for your country and doing something that’s never been done before.”

Echeverri, 26, moved to Florida with his family when he was seven. He played roller hockey at a young age and began playing ice hockey competitively when he was 10. He’s been in love with the sport ever since.

“It’s different than any other sport around,” he said. “You have to be very talented. You’ve got to have the ability to skate, keep your head up to pass or shoot. You’ve got to be able to think quickly and see the plays develop. Skating down the ice with the wind hitting you, it’s the greatest feeling.”

Echeverri, who went to Cypress Bay High School on the East Coast, played junior hockey but found his game had hit a plateau. He began to think he didn’t have much of a future in the sport. But he heard a few of his buddies were going to head west on Alligator Alley and compete for the Junior Everblades. He decided he wanted to give it a shot, as well.

While with the Junior Blades, he worked closely with coaches Tad O’Had and Jake Lemay. The coaches helped Echeverri hone his game, and he parlayed that tutelage into a four-year college career with the Florida Gulf Coast University club hockey team, where Echeverri won a pair of national titles.

“The Junior Everblades really helped me fall in love with the sport all over again,” he said. “Junior hockey is the about the funnest hockey you can possibly play. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. I loved my teammates and my coaches.”

Echeverri said he learned a lot about training, both on the ice and off, while with the Junior Blades. He’s now hoping to use what he’s learned at the professional level. He hasn’t signed with a team yet, but is banking on his high-level performance at international tournaments earning him an invite from someone.

“Coming from a third-world country, hockey is the least thing my parents expected me to play,” Echeverri said. “I wasn’t sure which way to go, but once I started playing with the Junior Blades, I started believing I had a future in this game.