By Bill Vilona – Contributing Writer for the Ice Flyers
One of his best friends sent a complimentary text message to Pensacola Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris in the hours following the Sept. 16 landfall of Hurricane Sally and all its wrath.
“Consider yourself a hurricane survivor!”
The words evoked laughter.
Harris, a Pensacolian and native Canadian, has dealt with the worst imaginable winter weather growing up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
He has lived where below-zero temperatures, combined with face-stinging blizzards, are common in many winter months.
Now, he’s experienced the worst from the tropical side. He has just felt the first direct hit from a damaging hurricane.
“I am proud to say that I am now officially a hurricane survivor,” said Harris, who fortunately had only minor damage to his Gulf Breeze home.
“But what impresses me so much is how resilient the people are here along the Gulf Coast. As soon as things died down, it was like, ‘All right, let’s get to work.’ It’s amazing to see.”
Harris and his staff with the Ice Flyers, most of whom had never experienced a hurricane, followed suit and got right back to work.
The Ice Flyers’ employees are helping clean up areas around the Pensacola Bay Center, once it no longer was a hurricane shelter. They have offered help to others.
They have done whatever is needed. Veteran player Ryan Marcuz, who played the past two seasons for the Ice Flyers, also pitched in to help.
He has been in town to rehab following a surgical procedure.
“It was great to see all the staff come together and help clean up our home,” Harris said. “When you think about it, the Bay Center is literally our second home. During hockey season, it’s debatable whether I spend more time at my home or here at the arena.”
The Ice Flyers staff was able to further bond together and help make a difference, which became a gratifying feat.
“We were able to add to the piles (of debris) and create lot more piles,” Harris said. “But the big thing is the Bay Center has been a hurricane shelter for a week. I have been talking to (arena management) since day one about, ‘Hey, what can we do to help out there. This is our home.”
In doing so, the Ice Flyers staffers brought some needed relief and boost to the Bay Center management.
“Their staff is exhausted,” Harris said. “They went through this hurricane. They have their own homes and their own issues and they were also taking care of evacuees and putting in extremely long hours. We just wanted to help out and do our part, and we can’t thank them enough.”
This would normally be the time of year when the Ice Flyers would be in full-bore preparations for an upcoming season. Training camp for players would be just around the corner.
But with ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Southern Professional Hockey League has pushed back the season into a tentative December start. In mid-March, the past season was halted by the first impact of the virus and the SPHL owners later voted to cancel the remaining games and the playoffs.
Harris is hopeful a 2021 season can begin and completed with a semblance of normalcy. Right now, his focus is on helping the community in other ways.
“I think it has kind of brought us back together again,” Harris said. “How many neighbors have you talked to that maybe you once only saw in passing? Things like that have happened. The sense of community here is incredibly high right now.
“In the area where I live, we have helped neighbors, friends and have cleaned-up side streets to chip in. I consider myself extremely lucky. I know others are not as lucky. And I know it is my responsibility to help those who are not as lucky.”
Harris said he began experiencing the worst of the storm at 3 a.m. Sept. 16. Text messages were coming into his phone asking if he was okay. His two dogs, troopers they were, stayed calm, but were not exactly anxious to go outside even after the worst of the storm had passed.
“It just lasted so long,” Harris said. “I know by the end of the first night, everybody was just exhausted… and they could finally let go and breathe again.
“Some of the things that have amazed me is just seeing the amount of power companies from all over the country. The first one I saw was from Ohio.
“That made me just shake my head and go, ‘Wow!’ There are people driving hundreds and hundreds of miles to help our community, our Gulf Coast. We probably will never see these people, know these people, or be able to repay these people. There are so many unsung heroes.”
Unlike most residents along the Gulf Coast, Harris has now gone through the worst of Mother Nature from both sides. There are major differences.
In a winter blizzard, automobiles can be covered or buried in snow. But once the snow is removed and the door locks can be opened, the vehicle’s engine will normally start with or without a battery charge.
The car can operate again. Not true with extensive water damage like so many vehicles incur during hurricane flooding. Homes in winter locations that have snow piling up also don’t have roofs blown off.
But as Harris reminds, he has gone out in 40-below zero where any part of exposed flesh on a body can instantly result in dangerous frostbite.
And the winter weather and extreme cold temperatures in Canadian provinces don’t just go away in days. So, it can all be relative in terms of challenges.
“The common thing is just how resilient the people are,” Harris said. “People here are tough. They go through this and handle it. But I have to say it was really interesting to experience this. It is like, ‘Hey I made it through this.’
“Just sending texts to different people and seeing the pictures from others, it was hard not to get emotional. You can’t help it.”
Harris has been a resident owner of the Ice Flyers since he took over the franchise a decade ago. He has fallen in love with the Gulf Coast, the Pensacola area. So he hurts with everyone else to see damage incurred.
“This is our backyard, this is our community, this is where we are every day,” he said. “And these pictures are right in front of our eyes and not on TV or Facebook.
“It was tough not to be emotional as I was updating family and friends and just counting our blessings.”