Hockey in Jacksonville: The IceMen Cometh

Attention, Jacksonville hockey fans. This fall, the IceMen Cometh. The Jacksonville Icemen make their local debut Oct. 14 against the Orlando Solar Bears at the Jacksonville Memorial Arena. The minor league hockey will join the East Coast Hockey League, playing 36 home games against south division teams from Atlanta, Cincinnati, Naples, Orlando, Gainesville, and Charleston.

At the helm of the team’s bold relocation from Evansville, IN, to the winter-challenged state of Florida is Bob “The Closer” Ohrablo, president of the Jacksonville IceMen. Selling the hockey experience to a southern market is what he does best. “I like a challenge,” says Ohrablo, who has sold hockey in such warm climates as Arizona and south Florida. “I’ve got over 30 years of experience promoting hockey and most of my experience has been in non-traditional hockey markets. I love hockey and I love promoting hockey. Sometimes the hardest thing is getting people to come once. Once they come, they’ll come back.”

A native of New York, Ohrablo has spent the last 16 years in Florida developing the Florida Panthers and bringing back the Orlando Solar Bears franchise.  “I’ve done this in traditional markets as well, but traditional markets tend to have cold winters. Growing up in New York, as I got older, I thought, ‘You know what? I can still have hockey and the great weather all at the same time’,” he says. “That led me to Phoenix, and then back to Syracuse for a little, then down to Florida for good. There are a lot of people that want to see hockey come back here.”

“Sometimes the hardest thing is getting people to come once. Once they come, they’ll come back.”

In the northern states where hockey is a birthright, parents stuff their kids into a pair of skates and shove them out onto the ice as soon as they can stand upright. But most of us living below the Mason-Dixon line have very little frame of reference for hockey and associate the goalie mask with the Halloween film franchise rather than the sport.

According to Ohrablo, the growing number of transplants that have arrived in Jacksonville since the Lizard Kings’ last skate is also a positive marker for the Icemen’s success. “[Jacksonville is] not necessarily a non-traditional market. There are a lot of people that live here that grew up with hockey wherever they come from up north or Midwest or northeast,” he says. “We’re finding more and more of those people are here, and hockey fans are very passionate. We’re filling the void that was here and when you add those things together, hopefully we have a recipe for being here for quite a while.”

Jacksonville has tried maintaining a hockey team before—a few times, actually. And while the support was there in the beginning, the excitement faded away like new car smell. Who remembers the Bullets and the Barracudas? So what makes the Jacksonville IceMen any different?

“It’s very fast-paced and we’ll provide a good, solid two and a half hours of entertainment for a reasonable price.”

“That’s a fair question. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered that. One thing is the arena is great. This was contingent on us getting a deal with the arena and the city that worked for both sides. It makes sure the city doesn’t lose any money by having hockey here and make sure that we don’t go out of business because the lease is so difficult,” says Ohrablo. “But like any business, you don’t go into any business thinking you’re going to make a huge profit the first year. You got to be capitalized correctly and we’ve been able to do that.”

The Jacksonville IceMen have an agreement with the National Hockey League that will provide the team with up to six players. Ohrablo says the contract helps players who aren’t quite ready to advance to the upper league develop their pro game while providing the ECHL with a deeper talent pool. “There’s a pretty good difference between each level of hockey in terms of speed mostly. The first pro job that some of these kids get is in the ECHL. We’re working with several NHL clubs and we just want to find who has the best kids coming up,” he says.

“Hockey is an interesting sport. The more you play a team, the easier it is to become a rival. Guys get to know each other and there are guys they like and those they don’t like and sometimes that boils out onto the ice. It’s a very physical sport. Unlike football where you brace yourself to get hit, when you’re skating round the ice at 30 miles an hour you don’t always know it’s coming and tempers can flare from time to time.”

For a city that thrives on a good rivalry, Ohrablo plans to capitalize on the existing Florida/Georgia rivalry to draw fans who are already downtown for the college game over to the arena to give the Icemen a try. He likens the ticket structure and the family-friendly atmosphere to that of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and promises the Jacksonville IceMen will always deliver a good time whether or not you like the sport.

“If you’re a baseball fan, you enjoy the game and even if you’re not a baseball fan, you can enjoy all the other stuff that comes with it and that’s what we’ll be doing as well,” he says. “We are going to provide a family-affordable entertainment. We’re very excited about our schedule and this opportunity for families to come to the games and enjoy the atmosphere around the exciting sport of hockey. It’s very fast-paced and we’ll provide a good, solid two and a half hours of entertainment for a reasonable price.”

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