Ice Flyers Bask In Championship Glory, Eye Bright Future Ahead

 

By Bill Vilona

Ice Flyers Correspondent

The days have whirled past in a way that Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris can best appreciate.

Since the team’s championship victory May 15 at Macon, it has been full calendar of requests, visitors, potential business inquiries, season-ticket renewals and planning for a new season that is now less than five months away.

“It’s a fun chaos. That’s the best way I can describe it,” said Harris, laughing, as he reflected outside the team’s main office at the Pensacola Bay Center.

“Because not every team gets to take part in what we are doing,” he said. “And we have done it four times in nine years. It’s almost like we have been here, done that and we know what to do. Yes, it’s busy, but I wouldn’t trade it for everything in the world.”

The Ice Flyers navigated through a season which started in late December during the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. They were unsure about how everything would evolve, or if the season would get completed without a potential shutdown.

Not to mention, whether fans would embrace being at games with masks required.

Through all of that, plus going two months without a home ice win, the Ice Flyers peaked when it counted most. They swept through two rounds of playoffs, beating the Knoxville Ice Bears, then top-seed Macon Mayhem, as a third-place team to claim their fourth Southern Professional Hockey League title.

The President’s Cup trophy has now been all over town. Harris was recently honored by the Escambia County Board of Commissioners during a meeting last week.

Potential business clients are calling. Harris expects championship merchandise will arrive soon and be put on sale through the team’s website. The team had a party at Blue Wahoos Stadium.

“That is what we want,” Harris said. “We want to share it with the community. It is a great accomplishment that we achieved this year. Considering everything that has happened. From the lowest of lows, to the highest of highs.

“We know in a couple weeks, things will begin to dial down. But for right now, we want to make sure we capitalize on everything.”

The future looks far different today than a year ago at this time. The next SPHL season is expected to start in mid-October, after the owners meet to finalize plans. It will be back to a 56-game schedule with 28 home-away games.

There will be 11 teams in the league. The five North Division teams will return, along with the new expansion team in Danville, Illinois.

The Ice Flyers are now able to sell season-tickets with every seat at the Bay Center available. During the past season, the Ice Flyers had to cap tickets to approximately 3,100. They drew more than 45,000 fans for 21 regular-season games.

Their average attendance (2,172) in those games, along with their playoff average (2,890) led the SPHL in both categories. Next year? Wide open. No pod seating.

“We’ll be going at it 100 percent,” Harris said. “Everything will be back to normal. We’re still going to have road trips regionally skewed.

“So, we will be playing Birmingham, Huntsville and Macon way more than Peoria, Roanoke and Evansville, because we remain cost-conscious on travel and make sure our business model works.

“Our (owners) sentiment has been this past season was survival. and we survived. And this coming season is recovery.”

Ice Flyers head coach Rod Aldoff has traveled back to Minnesota, where he will spend the summer preparing to recruit and sign players for next season. But he has every intention of returning to Pensacola to seek another championship run.

He’s now part of the Pensacola community.

“Pensacola has been very good to me,” said Aldoff as he was driving northward. “The Ice Flyers have been very good to me and everybody else. It is like a second home.

“The people have been great to me.. We all work hard to make it a good product and good entertainment for our fans. I love it here.  I have met some great friends. I am a pretty lucky guy.”

Aldoff has led the Ice Flyers to three of the team’s four championships. This one occurred in very different circumstances due to the reduced schedule and all the team went through.

“They are all sweet,” he said. “Winning is difficult in itself. And everybody in the league had to go through the same things. That part was difficult.

“Not just for hockey, but for everything in our lives. It was very unique with all the restrictions, different approaches to coming and leaving the arena, the games, everything was different was for sure.

“At the end of the day, when we got on the ice, and shut the doors inside the arena, it was hockey as normal. Once we left the ice surface, that’s when it changed. From the hockey side of it, once the puck dropped, it was then business as usual.”

What also stood out with the Ice Flyers season is something Harris realized in the playoffs. This was a team with players that had never won a college or pro championship.

When the Ice Flyers won at Macon to clinch the SPHL crown, he noticed players unsure of how to celebrate. They asked if the Champagne and cigars Harris arranged were for them to enjoy.

“It’s like they were shocked we had that in the dressing room,” Harris said, laughing. “It was so cool to see that new championship feeling with all our players.

“There is such a short window for these guys in their pro careers. They had a great time celebrating.”

Part of the championship feeling the Ice Flyers carry through the summer is knowing they finished a season during a time when minor-league hockey was upended by Covid-19.

“We were all very grateful we were able to play,” Aldoff said. “Half the teams in pretty much every league didn’t get to play. So there were a lot of players, coaches, equipment manager, trainers that didn’t get to do their job.”

Once the Ice Flyers had players like assistant captain, Alec Hagaman, return from injury, along with goaltender Jake Kupsky getting back in a groove, the team took off.

The Ice Flyers finished winning nine of 10 games, including the four-game sweep of playoff rounds.

“I knew we had a good team all year,” Aldoff said. “We were just off a little bit at certain times. We just had to stick to it and believe. It was no surprise to me how well we played.

“Not only was I the coach of the team, I was a fan of the team. They were a great group of guys and deserved it. They were the best team in this league and they showed it in the playoffs.”