[Pensacola, FL] The sunny, picturesque beach town of Pensacola is the last place that you’d think that you would find a pro hockey team. The vacation destination resort area – nicknamed the “Redneck Riviera” – is well known for its white sandy beaches, postcard landscapes and relaxed atmosphere.
It would seem that Pensacola is an unlikely place for a sport that incorporates brutal hits, features something illegal called “slashing” and is played primarily by those living thousands of miles away in the upper reaches of North America, the coldest parts of Europe and elsewhere home to climates most resembling the inside of a freezer.
Yet the Pensacola Ice Flyers thrive in this small, historic and un-apologetically warm place that features cool ocean breezes and scenery so beautiful that it is hard to focus on things like … hockey.
“Every player, when they come to Pensacola they are blown away … it’s more of a resort,” Ice Flyers player-assistant coach Dan Buccella told Sunshine Slate. “I have to constantly remind players ‘you’re down here to play hockey.’ It is such a beautiful place. … The nicest place to play pro hockey.”
Pro hockey has been a part of Pensacola’s fabric since the town’s previous hockey team, the Ice Pilots, dropped their first puck back in 1996.
Those now-defunct Ice Pilots – which were at times affiliated with such top-tier National Hockey League (NHL) teams as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders and the Chicago Blackhawks – lasted until 2008 playing in the ECHL.
But three bad seasons and an owner reluctant to stay in the ECHL forced the league to revoke his license.
Photo: Pensacola Ice Flyers
The Pensacola Ice Flyers logo (left), player-coach Dan Buccella (right)
Enter former NHL stand-out Tim Kerr who skated into town with an offer from the independent Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) to join its ranks. The team was rechristened the Ice Flyers, which is partly due to Kerr’s history with the Philadelphia Flyers and the rest as a homage to air show favorites the Blue Angels, who practice their high-flying antics in town.
Now, depending on the time of year, the Pensacola Ice Flyers draw on average 3,100 fans per game. That’s without a big-league affiliation or without any former NHL stand-outs on their roster (a rule of the SPHL). Clearly, a bond has been created between the team, the players and the community.
“Friday and Saturday night, it’s the place to be,” says Buccella.
Perhaps hockey works here because so many northerners have settled in the area. Or, maybe, it is because Pensacola is a family-friendly party town and a hockey game is the perfect mix of the two worlds.
Or maybe because at the moment, Pensacola Ice Flyers hockey is also the only pro game in town.
And Ice Flyers minority owner Greg Harris loves every minute of it. He’s the new kid on the block, so to speak. He arrived in town in October and has been immersed in his team’s fortunes ever since. He’s also introduced himself to just about everyone who’s come into the building for a game.
Photo: Alyssa Ollivierre/Sunshine Slate Images
Pensacola Ice Flyers battle the Mississippi RiverKings on March 2, 2012
“I do a lot of walking around during games … I love meeting people,” says Harris via a phone interview with Sunshine Slate. “And being able to just talk hockey with the fans and just ask, ‘hey, how you doing? What have you been up to lately?’ … The interaction of the people in the arena is probably what I get the most joy of.”
He’s hard to pick out of the crowd though – instead of the obligatory dress shirt and tie typical of team owner types, Harris can always be found during game time wearing an Ice Flyers jersey and hat.
“I’m a fan,” he says emphatically.
But the team’s status as the only game in town is about to change – the humble seaside Panhandle village is on its way to fielding a minor-league baseball team, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
The Blue Wahoos, a double-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds of Major League Baseball (MLB), are already a hit – they’ve sold out all of their season ticket packages for the 2012 season, which begins in less than a month. And they’ve built a fresh, new stadium for the fans to experience it all in.
Is Harris concerned at all about the competition? Is there room for another pro sports team in this small town? Can ice-cold hockey compete with the field of dreams?
“Absolutely,” says Harris, who points to the alternating seasons of the two sports. “Their’s is done before we even start. It’s actually going to be great for Pensacola sports. You know you get hockey all winter and then baseball all summer. … It’s going to be a good mix, I think.”
Photo: Alyssa Ollivierre/For Sunshine Slate
Maritime Park Stadium in early February, home of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos
Player-coach Buccella, who has been with the Ice Flyers organization for three years and the SPHL since the beginning, is actually looking forward to a little baseball during the off-season.
“I think it is great that Pensacola is getting another team,” says Buccella, who plans on going to a few ballgames himself.
As someone schooled in the business arts, Harris obviously enjoys the challenge of team ownership, and, as a former player, the action on the ice. It is a perfect mix for him, indeed.
“I like the minor league … it’d be great to own a major league team, but the minor mentality is completely different,” he says. “It’s more of an entertainment value than the actual game itself. The game is also obviously important, but a lot of people keep coming if they have fun at the game.”
Buccella says that the fans feel a stronger kinship to the players and the team.
“Our games are more exciting, fans get a more personal connection,” says Buccella. “The games have more of a community feel.”
Both Buccella and Harris point to things like actually getting to spend time with some of the players and seeing them around town in casual settings. The players and staff are more approachable than, say, players from the bigger leagues like the NHL.
Photo: Alyssa Ollivierre/Sunshine Slate Images
Skate expectations at the Pensacola Civic Center
Harris and Buccella are both originally from Canada, as are many of the players on the Ice Flyers. The guys have lived and breathed pro hockey since they can remember.
For Harris, that history and background has helped shape his outlook on ownership and marketing of the Ice Flyers. He understands that marketing and merchandising a small-market team is much different from marketing the Tampa Bay Lightning or one of those teams from our neighbors to the North.
“I lived in Edmonton … I’ve been to games, I’m an Oilers fan,” admits Harris. “It’s frustrating to go to a game because when they weren’t doing well … the game itself wasn’t that great. Whereas here, there’s an entire package that we have to put together.”
Harris says that it is a challenge to keep bringing the customers in from the casual paradise that surrounds the building.
“I really enjoy that, coming up with different things … different markets that we can target and attract more people and hopefully get them hooked on hockey. And increase our season ticket holders, increase our fan base, increase our reach,” says Harris. “Not just in the Pensacola area, but along the entire Gulf Coast.”
Immediately, thoughts of Harris wrestling a bear come to mind. Why, you ask? In the classic sports comedy film Semi-Pro, minor-league basketball team owner-player Jackie Moon (played by Will Ferrell) tries all kinds of outlandish promotional stunts – some ridiculous, some dangerous – to fill the stands.
In one such stunt, Moon attempts to wrestle a huge bear during halftime – that is until the sheer enormity of the fierce creature sets in and he decides to cancel the wrestling match. But it is too late – the bear has already been let loose, and panic and hysteria ruin the night and the game. (fans click “Jackie Moon” for cool Semi-Pro merch.)
Photos: Alyssa Ollivierre/Sunshine Slate Images
Pensacola Ice Flyers prepare while the fans interact with Maverick, the team mascot
Harris has seen the film and laughs at the comparison, but says that he doesn’t take it that far, he won’t be wrestling a bear or anything crazy like that.
“We do a lot of fun things at the game … a lot of good contests,” says Harris. “The fans are pretty interactive and that’s what we want to keep because even if the game might not be going great … they are being entertained every single time the whistle blows.”
Activities include bed races between “rival” apartment complexes, “chuck a puck,” and the requisite “shoot to win.” But in the end, whether or not someone walks in that door or buys a souvenir can simply come down to one factor: the price. Especially with the economy still in recovery.
“We try to keep it as cheap as possible. We have tees for $10, hats for $10,” says Harris. “We would much rather have ten Ice Flyers shirts walking around than five. They’re walking billboards for us, so that’s why we happen to price them accordingly and find ways to promote our product, our merchandise, our game, our sponsorship in different ways.”
“There’s a lot less disposable income out there. So we are fighting for people’s disposable income,” he says.
Won’t the baseball team impact those dollars? Harris says that the Blue Wahoos, while technically a minor-league team, have a much larger marketing budget in addition to a larger field of vision when it comes to potential sponsors.
“There are on a different level because they are an AA baseball team [affiliated with the] major leagues,” says Harris. “We’re independent … we look at local markets … they go for national brands. We have products from $250 up to $5000.” By contrast, the Blue Wahoos have products in the tens of thousands.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos logo
As an independent league, none of the SPHL’s teams are affiliated with any major-league teams, which has pros and cons. To keep the league financially sturdy, they only field teams in the Southeastern part of the United States. That keeps travel costs down for its teams and the regional rivalries heated.
But without ties to a major team, nothing comes easy for teams such as the Pensacola Ice Flyers. It takes hard work and skillful marketing.
It is a formula that has added up to continued success for the fledgling, nine-team league. And with their fervent fan support and pedigree ownership, the Pensacola Ice Flyers is one of the stronger organizations in the SPHL.
And the SPHL is happy to be in Pensacola, its only Florida team.
“It’s a very nice facility,” says SPHL Commissioner Jim Combs of the Pensacola Civic Center, the 8,000-plus seater – affectionately dubbed “The Hangar” – that is home to the Ice Flyers. The SPHL has designs on adding some more teams to its mix, eventually totaling out at 12 or 14 teams.
Plans include landing another team from Florida as the Pensacola Ice Flyers is currently the only squad hailing from the Sunshine State.
While speaking with Sunshine Slate for this story, Combs mentioned that he was headed down to Pensacola himself over the weekend to take in some action and to check in on one of his newest minority owners (Harris). By all accounts, he’s doing just fine.
“I am still getting my feet wet but I have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on here,” says Harris. “It’s the best of both worlds for me … I love hockey, I love business. Hockey and business wrapped up into one. I’ve having the time of my life here. It’s awesome.”
The Pensacola Ice Flyers have only six games left in their season, four of those are home games. Visit the team’s website here. See the team’s schedule here. Purchase tickets here. If you can’t make it to a game, you can catch them on the radio here.
By: Mark Christopher/Sunshine Slate
Lead image: Alyssa Ollivierre/Sunshine Slate Images
Pensacola Ice Flyers