Ice Flyers Autism Awareness Night Brings Unique Reflection

Bill Vilona

Ice Flyers Correspondent

The Ice Flyers end their home schedule with some reflection and emotional impact.

Days before the world changed a year ago, the team held its first Autism Awareness Night on March 7, 2020 at the Pensacola Bay Center.

There was joy all around. A season-high goal total. A 7-2 win against a first-place team. More than $25,000 raised for Autism Pensacola’s non-profit organization.

“It was an amazing night,” said team owner Greg Harris, remembering the weekend against the Fayetteville Marksmen. “The biggest charity night we had.”

A week later, the Ice Flyers season was shut down by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Those memories remain vivid as Harris and the team prepared for Saturday night’s repeat of Autism Awareness Night — part of back-to-back games against the Knoxville Ice Bears to finish a 21-game home schedule.

“During a staff meeting in the summer, as we were deciding on how to move forward with the season, a night for Autism Pensacola was one of first things brought up,” said Harris, whose staff opted for a variety of activities, along with the team wearing navy blue, custom-designed jerseys reflecting the Autism Awareness puzzle pattern.

“There was just a unanimous feeling of ‘Let’s do it.’ These kind of benefit nights are important to us,” Harris said. “But more important for the community.

“We are trying to do whatever we can to better our community, especially in this COVID-19 world.”

There was an online auction for the specialty jerseys. There are also replica jerseys for sale Saturday at merchandise booths, plus the post-game auction for jerseys worn by Ice Flyers players in the game. Sunday closes out the weekend with Fan Appreciation Day in a 4:05 p.m. game against Knoxville.

The Ice Flyers clinched a playoff spot Friday with their 5-2 win against Huntsville. They have two road games remaining May 1-2.

A main element this weekend was the finish line for a season no one in the league was sure how it would evolve.

“It is truly hard to believe (the end of the season) is here this quickly,” Harris said. “We are near our goal as a business. As a business our goal was to just get through the season and put together the best product we could on the ice and off the ice.

“Considering everything going on around us and all the cancellations that are still happening, we are going to deem this season as a success if we can complete the season.”

Once knowing an abbreviated, 42-game schedule among the five-team South Division half of the league would happen, the Ice Flyers planned April 24 as Autism Awareness Night.

“April is also the national Autism Acceptance Month, so it ties in nicely with everything we are doing,” Harris said.

A year ago in March, the Ice Flyers were fighting for a playoff position. The win that night against Fayetteville on the Autism Awareness game helped boost their mood.

Shortly thereafter, Harris attended a news conference at the Bay Center to announce the Sun Belt Conference Basketball Tournaments would be played in Pensacola the next five years, plus large high-definition video boards would be purchased to replace antiquated scoreboards.

The Ice Flyers had four home games remaining March 15 when the SPHL owners announced the remainder of the season, including the playoffs, was cancelled.

“It was a such a whirlwind of a week,” Harris said. “Isn’t that crazy? We go from having this amazing night for a local non-profit, then few days later, adding another great event to the community and having arena upgrades, then shutting down the season.

“It was the highest highs and one of the lowest lows. It was such an emotional roller coaster. But we did a lot of good last year and we are hoping to do a lot of good this year.”

The online jersey auction featured jerseys from three former Ice Flyers stars, goaltender John McLean, forwards Dan Buccella and Joe Caveney.  Former NFL defensive tackle Fred Robbins along with Hall of Fame boxer Roy Jones Jr. have jerseys with their names for auction.

Harris added Mary McClellan, the new executive director of Autism Pensacola to have a jersey for auction, along with Mallory Studer, who has served multiple years as board chairwoman of Autism Pensacola.

“It is a way for people from different circles, different entities to be part of this and help raise money for Autism Pensacola,” Harris said. “It is all part of an initiative I wanted to start before last season. I wanted to tie in a night with a local non-profit agency, so the money stays here.”

“Our first name is Pensacola, before it says Ice Flyers,” Harris said. “So, let’s take care of Pensacola. We’re trying to improve the quality of life in Pensacola.”

 

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: Ice Flyers Final Home Weekend

WHEN: Saturday 7:05 p.m. (Ice Flyers vs. Knoxville Ice Bears), Sunday, 4:05 p.m. (Ice Flyers vs. Ice Bears).

WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center

RADIO: Fox Sports Pensacola (FM 101.1).

TICKETS: Available online or arena box office.

THEMES: Saturday, Autism Awareness Night. Sunday: Fan Appreciation Day.