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Flyers Back on the Ice

High Hopes as Hockey Season Begins
by Scott Huhn

Pensacola’s hockey fans are letting out a collective sigh of relief, for the wait is over. The skating, the shoving, the icing, and the fouling will begin anew, as the Pensacola Ice Flyers’ 2010-2011 season kicks off on Saturday, Oct. 23, at the Pensacola Civic Center—also known to hockey fans as the Hangar—and the anticipation couldn’t be higher.

The preparation for takeoff in the Ice Flyers’ second season as an organization has been much smoother than last year. The previous incarnation of hockey in Pensacola ended badly. When the owners of the Pensacola Ice Pilots allowed the team to dissolve in 2008, it was after three dismal seasons. Relationships between the team, the fans, the Civic Center, and with Escambia County had soured.

And even as that team’s owner was making his exit proclaiming that hockey couldn’t work in Pensacola, the atmosphere of disappointment in the demise of the team made it hard to deny that Pensacola had a fan base for hockey, and a loyal one at that.

This loyalty was recognized by Tim Kerr. Kerr played right wing for the Philadelphia Flyers, is a member of that team’s hall of fame, and is the holder of the NHL record for most power play goals in a single season. Since his retirement from the sport, Kerr went on to own a successful New Jersey-based real estate business.

A familiar name to hockey fans in Pensacola, Kerr owned the Ice Pilots, selling them after two strong seasons because of financial hardship faced by the community after Hurricane Ivan.

But Kerr knew hockey could work in Pensacola, and learning lessons from his last ownership stint, he felt he knew the right approach that would win over the town’s hockey detractors in order to make a new team a success in moving forward.

“Anytime a team leaves and then comes back, there’s going to be animosity,” says Aaron Epstein, the Ice Flyers’ director of marketing, business development and game presentation. “We disappointed (the community) by leaving. This time we wanted to have a community feeling.”

And with that attitude, Kerr put together an organization of people—a majority of whom had never worked in Pensacola hockey before. The result was a success both on and off the ice.

In their premiere season, the Pensacola Ice Flyers made it to the playoffs, losing in the first round to the Huntsville Havoc, the eventual winners of the season’s Southern Professional Hockey League Championship prize: the President’s Cup.

But another victory came in the team’s impressive game attendance numbers. An average of 3,457 fans attended each game, making the Ice Flyers the third highest in the league for game attendance. One late-season game saw 7,189 fans pack the Hangar—a record in the Civic Center.

Community-centered attitude and fan-friendly approachability are values that pervade the team’s organization “from the owner Tim Kerr, all the way to the interns,” Epstein says.

Allowing fans to forge a connection with the players over numerous seasons was another goal set for the Ice Flyers, and a luxury not afforded by the Ice Pilots—members of the higher ECHL league—as players were frequently moved from team to team, and drafted to higher leagues, leaving the team with a high player turnover rate.

“The idea of having players and fans get to know each other is a good thing,” says Todd Gordon, now starting his second season as the Ice Flyers’ head coach. “This season we have eight players coming back.”

The returning players, says Gordon, come with the on-ice advantage of familiarity with each other and with him, their coach. With the team possessing this cohesion from the start, Gordon says fans should expect to see “a fast, high-energy, exciting team. The fans can look forward to a lot of wins with that.”

The Ice Flyers will play a 56-game schedule this season—28 away, and 28 at home—and will see a new team of rivals in the Augusta Riverhawks, the latest to join the now eight-team SPHL. Coach Gordon says this season has been “a lot smoother” from an organizational and recruitment standpoint compared to last year’s late start. This further encourages the coach and gives him confidence as he looks to the upcoming season. “We’re going to pick up where we left off,” he says.

But Gordon and Kerr have repeatedly made it known that what happens on the ice is only a part of a fan’s experience when they spend an evening at an Ice Flyers game. Each game night is designed as an event that keeps fans entertained from the start.

To become the leader of the entertainment on game nights in the Hangar, Aaron Epstein dons his hockey jersey and becomes “the man in the stands”: the “Big Show.” “For the fans there to see the game, I’m more of a host, keeping things moving during the slow parts,” explains Epstein. “For the fans more interested in the entertainment aspects, I’m like an emcee.”

Included in regular games are giveaways, trivia questions, and dance contests. Always a fan favorite, the team’s mascot, Maverick, is on the ice and in the stands interacting with fans. This season, too, will see the debut of a dance squad, the Pensacola Flight Attendants, who will perform at home games.

Special entertainment planned for game nights this season includes wiener dog races, baby races, and an Oct. 30 Halloween costume contest. And judging by the fun of last season, there should be a steady supply of on-ice games and challenges to keep fans’ energy high during game play, and during intermissions.

And further bolstering their commitment to the community, the upcoming season will give us special nights including Boy Scout Night; “Guns and Hoses,” a first responders appreciation night; and for the season-opening game, “Pink in the Rink Night,” where team members will wear specially-designed jerseys that will be auctioned off after the game, with proceeds going to the Pensacola Breast Cancer Association.

Individual game tickets range in price from $11 to $25 and can be purchased at the Civic Center box office, at all Ticketmaster outlets, online at ticketmaster.com, or by calling 800-745-3000. For more information and to stay up-to-date on the events and details of the season as it unfolds, visit the team’s website at pensacolaiceflyers.com.

Aaron Epstein and Todd Gordon each give a guarantee for the upcoming season. Epstein promises “major league entertainment at a minor league price,” and Gordon tells us to expect “a lot of wins.” With these vows, fans have plenty to look forward to when the puck drops on Oct. 23.
info@inweekly.net

PENSACOLA ICE FLYERS SEASON OPENER
WHEN: 7:05 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23
WHERE: Pensacola Civic Center, 201 E. Gregory St.
COST: $11-$25
DETAILS: pensacolaiceflyers.com