While the National Hockey League nears the cancellation of another season due to a player lockout, the Pensacola Ice Flyers are set to tip-off another great season in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) on October 26 on the road against the Columbus Cottonmouths.
Coming off a successful 2011 season that saw them make a run to the SPHL championship series, the Ice Flyers hope to build on last year’s momentum with a new coach, new logo, and a revamped line-up.
New Coach Gary Graham, beginning his first year as a head coach after four years as an assistant with the championship-winning Fort Wayne Komets in what is now known as the East Coast Hockey League, discussed how the team has had a competitive training camp to prepare for the upcoming season right after making the first cuts of the camp.
“It’s been a very competitive camp and tough decisions had to be made,” Graham said. “The five players I released all had skill and competed hard.”
The main camp roster is now down to 13 forwards, eight defensemen and three goalies, including seven returning players from last year’s finalist team.
Graham seemed pleased with how training camp has progressed thus far.
“I see a lot of hungry men. We talked about setting a tone in camp, and we have a lot of great leaders out here. Conditioning is a big thing I’m looking for. If a guy worked hard in the off-season like he should have, that usually stands out right away.”
Graham expressed how difficult it is to get the rooster set before the team’s opener.
“More difficult decisions lie ahead in the next few days,” Graham added. “We have a great deal of talent and a high compete level in camp this year. As tough as these choices will be, in the end, we still need to get down to 18 players for the season opener.”
The team is welcoming back standout goalie Steve Christie, who spurred the team’s late-season playoff run with an 11-2 record with a 2.08 goals against average.
The Ice Flyers earned 64 points and finished second in the nine-team league last before ultimately losing the best-of-three series against the Cottonmouths.
Minority owner Greg Harris expressed enthusiasm for the upcoming season and promised fans an exciting style of hockey.
“We made a lot of changes, but we have a lot of skill and size. We addressed some issues from last year. Even though we made the finals we were in the middle of the pack during the regular season. This season we want to be in the front of the pack all year long. We’re going to be a high-paced, high-scoring, hard-hitting team this year. It’s going to be a completely different style of game from what our fans have seen in the past.”
Harris also commented about the Ice Flyers’ commitment in bringing in guys who will represent the organization both on the ice and in the community.
“These guys are in the public eye. Even before we hired Coach Graham, he was in agreement with us about bringing in character guys that will lead by example on the ice and off the ice. Those are the type of guys he’s recruited. I can already see the difference,” he said.
Harris announced that this season will see more of a focus on fundraising for local charities.
“It’s great to support national charities, but we want to be sure that this year money that is raised in Pensacola stays in Pensacola,” he said.
To that end, Harris announced that Gulf Coast Kid’s House would be one of the charities money would be raised for this season, as well as the fact that the Ice Flyers’ home opening weekend November 2 would function as a food drive for Manna Food Bank.
Because of last season’s success, expectations are high among season ticket-holders as they anticipate a championship to complement the atmosphere and experience of an Ice Flyers’ game.
“I am super excited about the upcoming hockey season,” said Nicole Ransom. “The smell of hockey always brings a smile to my face. The fights are so much fun. I love it when the gloves come off.”
Raven Stone added that she is “looking forward to seeing the chemistry of the new team and the fast pace, aggressive style of play they bring to the ice.”
Harris also announced the continuation of several popular theme events, including Military Appreciation Night, Fan Appreciation Night, Mardi Gras Night, the teddy bear toss, and the four Sunday home games being centered on a family-friendly theme.
PENSACOLA ICE FLYERS HOME OPENER VS. MISSISSIPPI SURGE
WHEN: 7:05 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center, 201 E. Gregory St.