The Jacksonville IceMen aren’t skating on fresh ice.
Five past hockey franchises have set up on the First Coast before. One by one, they all sank to an icy grave. So how will the IceMen be different?
Finding that answer is part of the challenge for IceMen president Bob Ohrablo, head coach Jason Christie and their squad entering Saturday’s debut against the Orlando Solar Bears at Veterans Memorial Arena.
“I want people to see the level of play. I want people to be able to see how exciting the hockey is,” Christie said.
Exciting. For Christie, that’s the key word.
Their goal is to make hockey a permanent part of the city’s sports landscape - and not just stopping by for a visit like the ubiquitous Canada geese that dot Jacksonville’s Southside.
In other words, to succeed where the Rockets, Barons, Bullets, Lizard Kings and most recently Barracudas have failed.
It’s not easy. But they’ve been drawing up their blueprint for success selling a game on ice in the Sunshine State.
“Right now in the office, I know they’ve been working extremely hard,” Christie said. “We’re out reaching the community as much as we can right now, and there’s always more to be done.”
Ohrablo points to a hat trick of reasons.
The National Hockey League partnership with the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, which gives the team a pipeline to higher-quality players than would be available otherwise.
The hockey experience in the front office. Ohrablo previously worked for the Solar Bears as part of a decades-long hockey career and executive vice president Scott Einhorn spent four years in Orlando.
* More support from local leaders than past franchises enjoyed.
“The city has been great,” he said. “They gave us a lease that we think is fair for us and for them, and they didn’t always have that here.”
Some of the obstacles that hobbled the city’s past hockey efforts, meanwhile, aren’t in the picture - at least for right now.
Two of the last three franchises, the Bullets and Barracudas, found themselves in an alphabet soup of unstable micro-minor leagues that vanished not long after they formed.
Teams in the ECHL can come and go, and often do - the Alaska Aces, for example, melted away barely three years after winning the Kelly Cup championship in 2014.One of Christie’s own former teams, the Ontario Reign, packed up and moved two years ago to Manchester, N.H.
But the ECHL itself, founded in 1988, doesn’t look to be going anywhere.
“We know it’s going to be here,” Ohrablo said. “It’s gotten through its rough bumps early in its history, and now it’s become a solid, respected league.”
Plus, the IceMen have help.
The Lizard Kings, who never had an NHL affiliation, and the Barracudas, who played at a level too low to earn consideration, had to go it alone. Not so for the IceMen, who are linked with the NHL’s Jets and the second-tier American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose - connections that Christie described as “huge.”
They even have a secondary link to the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, who have no ECHL affiliate but sent the IceMen two players on loan earlier in the week.
Sooner or later, most of Jacksonville’s past teams either found themselves trapped in an outdated venue (the now-gone Coliseum) or having to make do at the Jacksonville Ice and Sportsplex.
It’s not a bad place to play hockey, but its tiny capacity - the Barracudas drew sell-out crowds of about 700 for their championship games in 2007 - kept teams from obtaining the amount of revenue needed to stay afloat.
Not so for the 14-year-old Veterans Memorial Arena, which looks to be a significant trump card in the IceMen’s long-term prospects. Capacity for hockey will be about 8,500, not including suites.
The five-year deal between the IceMen and the arena is considered more suitable for the club than the agreement for its predecessor.
That may help the IceMen avoid the unhappy fate that befell the Barracudas in 2007. That franchise drew an average of 2,722 fans, but arena management said it wanted to see 3,500. The outcome: The Barracudas exited the arena that summer and closed down a year later.
It’s hard to cheer for a team that consistently loses. Just ask Jaguars fans during the past half-dozen years.
Most of Jacksonville’s hockey efforts weren’t much better, from the reliably rotten Rockets to the promising but ultimately underachieving Lizard Kings.
That’s where the IceMen expect Christie to make a difference. He leads the ECHL in career victories, although he has yet to win the annual end-of-year championship, the Kelly Cup.
With a mix of hard work and good team chemistry, Christie believes the IceMen can outperform its predecessors.
“The number-one thing is them believing in each other,” he said. “If they believe in each other, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
There’s also one challenge that’s new to the IceMen.
The Lizard Kings and Barracudas had to compete with the NFL’s Jaguars and the Southern League’s Suns (now Jumbo Shrimp). That sports market is a whole lot more crowded now.
Ohrablo believes that there’s more than enough fan interest and entertainment dollars to go around in what he called a “great sports town.” He also feels that the October-to-April schedule will help the IceMen avoid going head-to-head with other sports for much of the season.
At this point, Ohrablo said the strong early interest, including a sellout for Saturday’s debut, has led him to increase his expectations.
He now believes the IceMen can regularly draw crowds of 6,000 to 6,500 fans.
He considers group sales a key to drawing those crowds, and he said the IceMen have already sold more than 2,500 group tickets for Saturday.
“Someone may go because they’re part of a Boy Scout troop or something,” Ohrablo said. “And then, when they get here, they’ve got to come back. It’s so infectious.”
The challenge, though, will be to keep them coming back.
“Probably half to two-thirds of the fans that come into our building on a game-to-game basis, for some of them it may be their first hockey game ever,” Ohrablo said. “So we’ve got to have a good time.”