The year is 1964, and the Eastern Hockey League’s Jacksonville Rockets make their debut at the old Coliseum to a confused fan base who were said to “not know a hockey puck from a bed warmer or a hockey stick from a shepherd’s staff.” Starting a traditionally northern sport in a Southern city was certainly a risk — all minor league franchises are. But many were convinced that if Southerners watched one live hockey game, they would be hooked for life.
As one of the few venues in the South large enough to produce the ice needed for a game, the “Bold New City of the South” would become home to several minor league hockey franchises throughout the years and spawned more cities to follow suit.
Flash forward to 2017, and a brand-new team is ready to take on the challenge of making Jacksonville a hockey town again.
HERE’S TO THE SUNSHINE STATE
Originating in Evansville, Indiana, the East Coast Hockey League’s IceMen faced similar challenges all minor league teams face — budgets and lease renewals. While the team was successful on the ice, their lease terms were one of the highest in the league for the second-smallest market. After a failed relocation attempt, owner Ron Geary knew something would have to change sooner, rather than later.
Geary formed a partnership with a group in North Florida who believed Jacksonville could be the next home for the 2017 IceMen. But certain building blocks needed to be established before an official move could take place.
“Firstly, we wanted to be well-funded with a close ownership group. And when we approached SMG and the City, they made it clear they would love to see [hockey] back. But they also wanted to make sure it was going to be a win-win situation. We were able to work out a fair lease deal that gives us a chance to be successful,” said team president Bob Ohrablo.
“Secondly, we looked at the growth of the Jacksonville population. People are not retiring here,” Ohrablo said. “They’re moving here to work. And a lot of those people are from up north. That wasn’t the case seven or eight years ago.”
After a solid ownership group agreed to the City’s lease that would set the team up for success, the Jacksonville IceMen were officially announced as the newest team in the ECHL.
But contract agreements were just the beginning. Because now, the move was official, the work began on building a franchise.
GLOVES OFF, STICK DOWN, NO WARNING
The first order of business was to hire a head coach. But because NHL teams have players under contract, the players who don’t make the NHL roster are then sent to the team’s minor league affiliates in the AHL, followed by the ECHL.
Unlike an AHL coach, where most of your roster spots are determined by the NHL affiliate, an ECHL coach is similar to a college coach where recruiting and coaching is a 24/7 job, which requires a unique skillset.
Out of six candidates to be interviewed, the IceMen’s leadership group honed in on the winningest coach in ECHL history, Jason Christie.
“[Jason] has been dedicated to this league for quite some time and you certainly can’t deny his record,” explained Ohrablo. “But you’re not just coaching, you’re building a team. The types of teams he’s built have lead the league in goals, wins and penalty minutes all at the same time. That’s the kind of team we want in Jacksonville.”
PUTTIN’ ON THE FOIL
Before Christie could build a roster, an NHL affiliation was established with the Winnipeg Jets and their AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. Because players are drafted at such a young age, it’s important for these affiliations to flourish because at any given moment, a potential NHLer is taking up six to seven roster spots on the IceMen. The rest of the roster is developed through personal relationships and independent players from all over the globe.
While Christie is busy building a staff of coaches and potential players to sign, Ohrablo and his front office team are busy finalizing in-game promotions and close to hitting their goal of 1,500 season tickets sold before any players hit the ice. But when the puck drops, Ohrablo knows fans will be hooked.
“There’s no better sport to watch in-person than hockey. We’ve done it well in other nontraditional markets, and we have a lot of bells and whistles in this building to take advantage of. So when someone comes to watch the IceMen, they’re going to have a good time.”