It doesn’t appear to make a lot of sense at first. But if mulled over for a moment, the notion of stepping out onto a frozen Canadian tundra in a pair of swim trunks starts to sound absolutely thrilling.
It’s the same with hockey at the beach. The concept is beautiful in its absurdity, like getting a cookie for breaking the rules.
The Pensacola Ice Flyers have been having fun breaking the rules for a couple of seasons now as they bring the sport of hockey to Northwest Florida. The team is currently knee-deep in its third season.
“The guys love it,” said Flyers minority partner Greg Harris. “Most of the guys are Canadian.”
Hockey has traditionally been a northern-oriented sport. It’s a quasi-religion in places where you can see your own breath, like Buffalo, Toronto and Philadelphia. It seems very natural in winter’s wonderlands, much like skiing or the Iditarod.
But these days we have ski slopes in shopping malls and hockey in Florida. And people seem to like it that way.
“We’re averaging anywhere from 3,000 to 3,500 a night,” said Harris. “It’s not really a tough sell.”
The team’s players seem to be enjoying hockey in the Sunshine State just as much as their fans.
“It’s different, a lot different,” said Dan Buccella, who plays center on the team. “The location makes it a lot nicer, obviously.”
Buccella spent some time playing in Chicago before heading down to the Southern Professional Hockey League. The Ontario native has been with the Ice Flyers for three years, but he’s no stranger to southern play.
“I’ve been with a few teams in this league,” Buccella said, listing off stints with the Huntsville Havoc, Louisiana IceGators and Fayetteville FireAntz.
The south has been warming up to the sport of hockey for a while now. Pensacola has enjoyed its own team for more than a decade.
Before the Ice Flyers, there was the Ice Pilots. Current owner Tim Kerr navigated the organization through the transition, after the Pilots dissolved in 2008.
When the Pilots ended their run, there was some sentiment that hockey couldn’t thrive in Pensacola. Kerr—who spent 13 years playing in the National Hockey League, the bulk of that time with the Philadelphia Flyers—is looking to dispel such a pessimistic idea.
But the Pensacola team owner isn’t pulling the notion of success out of the sweet, thick Florida air. Kerr led the Ice Pilots to winning seasons between 2003 and 2005.
Buccella said that the local hockey subculture has become evident through the support of local fans. They show up rink side at the Pensacola Civic Center.
“The fans here are great,” he said. “They’re a very lively crowd.”
Tyler Soehner, a defender who also hails from Ontario, agreed.
“Hopefully we just continue to see that,” Soehner said.
This year, the Ice Flyers have won three out of eight games so far. But the season is just getting under way.
“We’ve got a lot of games coming up after Christmas and after the New Year,” Buccella said. “That first part of the year is just a get-to-find-your-team. The second part of the season is when it gets exciting.”
Harris said he views the Ice Flyers as a great form of affordable family entertainment. The organization makes an effort to keep prices—on everything from tickets to t-shirts—at realistic levels.
“We want to keep being affordable so we can keep being viable,” Harris said.
Currently, a ticket for an Ice Flyers’ game at the civic center runs between $10 and $25, depending on the seats. There are also various package plans.
Come April, the Ice Flyers will be joined on the local professional-sports scene by Pensacola’s new Double AA baseball team, the Blue Wahoos. Harris sees the baseball addition as a welcome player that can only boost hometown morale.
“For people to get to go to a hockey game in winter and baseball games in summer, I think they’ll like that,” he said. “We can kind of feed off each other.”
And while players going through the Wahoos’ ranks may be headed to the majors, the Ice Flyers do not feed into a professional team in the NHL. But that doesn’t mean the SPHL’s players aren’t dreaming about the Stanley Cup.
“There’s always the possibility for an individual to move up,” Buccella said. “It’s up to them to see how far they can take it.”