The first thing that hits you is the cold, several degrees below most air conditioning. (Word from the wise: wear layers.) You may be briefly mesmerized by that first glimpse of stunningly smooth white, by the speed, agility and energy of players skating back and forth, chasing the puck and smashing it towards the net. Then there’s the spitting, the fighting, the blood that seem to contradict graceful figures racing to and fro in a dance as brutal as it is elegant. And no one could forget the dark gaps where teeth should be—a hockey player’s badge of honor.
On Oct. 14, the region’s newest professional sports franchise officially kick-started a highly anticipated season of chilly competition when the Jacksonville Icemen hit the ice against their first challengers, in-state rivals the Orlando Solar Bears.
The upper level of the arena is closed for games, so there’s really no such thing as a bad seat; all 9,000 seats are floor-level. Veteran fans will appreciate the brand-new glass boards that allow for a crystal-clear view of all the action, particularly when players crash into the three-meter-high pellucid walls.
The Icemen’s journey to the Jacksonville ice began nearly two years ago.
The team was previously based in Evansville, Indiana, but due to a lease renewal disagreement with the city last year, they decided to move.
“They had a good run in Evansville, but unfortunately they couldn’t find a lease that made financial sense to continue to operate there,” said Icemen President Bob Ohrablo.
Once both the Icemen and SMG—a worldwide venue management group that manages the arena—were comfortable with the terms and conditions, Ohrablo started procuring the necessary investors to bring the team to town.
Players arrived in town in September for training camp at the Veterans Memorial Arena, where the Icemen will play home games, and the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex on Philips Highway on the Southside. Each warrior has been carefully selected with one purpose in mind: victory.
“It’s very exciting,” said Ohrablo with only a few days to go before their first game. “[Icemen CEO] Ron Geary and I put this team together in February.”
In August, left winger Garet Hunt, a 10-year professional hockey veteran who most recently played for the now-relocated Alaska Aces, was the first player signed. Well-known for his bruising style on the ice, before this season, Hunt had racked up 2,177 penalty minutes in 565 games, placing him in the top 10 for penalties in the league. Hunt having previously played for Icemen Head Coach Jason Christie further facilitated the transaction.
“I think the city really wants hockey and Jason Christie’s coaching style is tough, which makes him always hard to play against,” said Hunt, who turned 30 the day of the team’s inaugural game, beginning a new decade of life for Hunt, a new era for Jacksonville hockey.
After one of the team’s early practices, Hunt, still sweating and red with exertion, told Folio Weekly that he sees great promise for the Icemen. It’s only natural for a minor league player to dream of being called up to the majors, but Hunt seemed entirely focused on the season before him.
Hunt, who hails from British Columbia, said that the chance to work in a tropical state for the better part of a year was enticing, particularly as his last team was in Alaska. But he’s most excited to do what he loves: play hockey.
“I get to be around guys on the same wavelength,” he said. “We all have similar interests so there’s really good camaraderie … you can come out here and either be a winner or loser in one night, and that’s what I love about it.”
The Icemen are the sixth team in Jacksonville hockey history. The Rockets were the first, beginning in 1964 as part of the now-obsolete Eastern Hockey League. During this period, most games were held at the Jacksonville Coliseum, which was torn down in 2003; Veterans Memorial Arena was erected on the same spot. The last local team was the Barracudas, which lasted six years and ceased play in 2008; however, most locals will probably best recall the much-beloved Lizard Kings (’95-’00), who made the East Coast Hockey League playoffs twice.
Geary and Ohrablo were drawn to the Southern Division because it’s one of the toughest and most competitive in the nation. Jacksonville seemed like the perfect place to begin anew.
Some may have trouble conceptualizing a successful hockey team in a state better known for beach bikinis than puck bunnies—not only due to the weather, but also the fan base. Typical Floridians don’t grow up playing or watching much hockey. Ohrablo isn’t concerned about attracting fans, though. “Many people that live here or other tropical states came from up north. They grew up with hockey and the fans are extremely passionate. It has mushroomed into a national sport and will continue to.”
The Icemen are an ECHL team, an intermediate professional league based in Princeton, New Jersey that functions as a development league for the American Hockey League, the highest level of minor league hockey, and National Hockey League, the major league sector. The Icemen are affiliated with AHL’s Manitoba Moose and the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, both based in Canada. The Jets sign players for themselves and for the Moose. Six to eight players from Winnipeg are assigned to the Icemen–generally younger and/or college graduates. The rest of the team consists mostly of veterans discovered by scouts and Icemen administration.
Left winger Emerson Clark, 24, a four season ECHL veteran who also previously played for Coach Christie, said his “love of the game” keeps him motivated.
“I’ve played this game since I was four years old with family,” said Clark, who, like Hunt, is Canadian. “The challenges are every day. Even during the summers when we don’t play hockey, we’re always training.
“You get in the routine of skating, practice and then working out afterwards. We have two-hour practices, so it’s a little tough, but you get used to it.”
Although this is the entertainment business, it isn’t just a game. They play out of passion and love for the sport, putting it all on the line and at times risking their health, relationships, even livelihood. At the end of the day, it’s a commitment to pursue a dream, albeit a dream with significant challenges.
All hockey players’ career objective is to advance in the league. At any given game there could be scouts watching, which creates added pressure on the players to perform their best. Prevailing professionally requires considerable sacrifice and dedication.
“There are hundreds of thousands of hockey players,” said Clark. As to the chances of making it into the major league, he said, “Just odd-wise, it’s pretty unlikely. [But] I’m sure if you work hard, your dream of becoming a professional hockey player can come true.”
When a player moves up during the season, they usually don’t transition directly to the NHL; instead, they start in the AHL. As their skill develops, they may be considered for promotion to the NHL. Sometimes the NHL will call men up mid-season to replace an injured player or to give a standout talent a shot. The opportunity to prove themselves can last anywhere from a few days to a full season. That’s why it’s crucial to remain dedicated and hungry. “It’s not just in the rink, it’s away from the rink. It’s what you put in your body and how you prepare for games,” said Coach Christie. “The game is as hard as you make it.”
Several teams tried to recruit Christie due to his record as the winningest coach in ECHL history—he has 547 victories and has led teams to the Kelly Cup Playoffs 11 out of 14 seasons.
“We wanted the best. We want to win on the ice; we want to win off the ice,” said Ohrablo. With Christie as head coach, Ohrablo isn’t shy about predicting a winning season and hopes to quickly foster a loyal fan following. (His hopes may have already come to fruition; their first game sold out well in advance.)
All Icemen opponents are from the ECHL Southern Division, which includes Fort Meyers, Orlando, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Greenville, South Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. The season will consist of 36 home games, 36 away.
Coach Christie said that one of his top priorities is cultivating a solid foundation of positive relationships with the community and fan base. Without the fans, there is no audience, and without an audience, there is no team. “The only thing we can control is ourselves and we want to make sure that, at the end of the day, we’re an entertainment business,” said Christie.
ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna is similarly confident of the team’s success. “The continuing growth of Jacksonville, along with the experienced and enthusiastic ownership group, the wonderful venue and support of the city officials, creates a very positive outlook for the future of pro hockey in Jacksonville,” he told the Florida Times-Union in February.
Over the years, many adaptations and changes in the sport have transpired. Ohrablo recalled how different things were decades ago. “Back in the 80s, the guys used to go out back between periods and smoke cigarettes,” he said. “You don’t see that anymore.”
Players today hold themselves to a higher disciplinary standard than their predecessors. Their elevated focus, impetus and determination creates a recipe for speed, agility and jaw-dropping collisions, not to mention shattered teeth, groin tears and swelling contusions from head, navel to toe.
Christie explained it isn’t the enormity of talent variation of players today that makes the difference; it’s the discipline and mental stability. If players take care of themselves and dedicate more to their training, not does the team perform at a higher level, they have a better chance of breaking through to the next level. Simply adding 20 minutes to every practice can provide an advantageous edge.
That edge was on display on Oct. 14 when the Jacksonville Icemen first took to the frozen battleground before a sold out crowd. Many waiting to get inside the stadium were already sporting Icemen merchandise; others started lining up well before the game to buy hats, t-shirts and the like. Thunderous music sent bass ricocheting around the arena, adding to the intensity of the experience. The crowd roared when defenseman Scott Savage scored the first goal of the game, and of Jacksonville Icemen history, three and a half minutes into the first period. Children in front row seats scrambled and screamed to be the first to grab the puck one player tossed over the Plexiglas boards.
Although the Icemen lost by one point (4-5) in sudden death overtime, judging by the smiling faces leaving the arena, no one was the least bit disappointed. A joyful snowball fight even broke out in a large pile of snow that the team arranged to have waiting just outside the arena to mark the occasion. They’d come for a hockey game and they got a spellbinding show complete with stick-clacking chaos, sharp skids, and three fist-flying brawls, one instigated by birthday boy Hunt, whose brawl thrilled the crowd (and earned him a penalty). Though the team fell to the South Carolina Stingrays 3-2 on Oct. 21, overall, both games showcased the Icemen’s athleticism, commitment and grit.
“It’s amazing, even from five years ago, the difference in the players, it’s unbelievable,” said Christie, who at the opener tied the ECHL record for the most games coached. “Hockey is as hard as you make it; it’s getting the guys to understand what needs to be done.”
Icemen take on the Atlanta Gladiators 7:30 p.m., Oct. 26, then go on the road for three weeks, returning home Nov. 14 to face the South Carolina Stingrays. $17-$43, jacksonvilleicemen.com.