By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers correspondent
Greg Harris was reflecting on the success of professional hockey in Pensacola when part of its history checked into his phone.
Former Pensacola Ice Pilots star, Christian Sbrocca, one of the team’s original members in 1996 and all-time fan favorites, was sending a text message to the Ice Flyers owner about Saturday’s special game at the Bay Center to honor the legacy of the former franchise.
“That has been another part of great joy in setting this up,” Harris said. “Just talking to these guys and listening to them talk about Pensacola and how much they loved their time here, no matter how brief it was.
“And the stories they were telling about the city and the fans and the games then. That’s been one of the great residual benefits of putting this all together.”
The Ice Flyers throwback night, complete with wearing Ice Pilots uniforms, is part of a three-game weekend against three different teams, beginning Friday night against the Macon Mayhem with Military Appreciate Night.
The Ice Flyers will transform into their predecessors Saturday on Ice Pilots Night when playing the Birmingham Bulls. They will close out the weekend with a matinee game (4 p.m.) Sunday against the Huntsville Havoc on Family Day.
“What is unique about this entire weekend is we are playing three different teams and hasn’t happed before,” Harris said. “That will be fun to be a part of.”
When brainstorming for the season’s various promotions, Harris had the idea of a doing an Ice Pilots night with a jersey auction and video highlights of the former team.
Now that the Bay Center has high-definition video boards, it offers a presentation for an event like this one that could have never occurred before.
While no former Ice Pilots players will be able to attend the game, the fans in attendance will get to relive memories and hear from players in videos that were not possible to showcase at the arena until this season.
Dan Shugart, the WEAR-TV sports director, has worked to arrange a highlight presentation from the station’s archives featuring some of the famous moments in Ice Pilots history
“We got permission from the ECHL to hold the throwback night and now we will be able to have a great night with a bunch of videos and player highlights,” Harris said. “Basically, my goal around Saturday’s game is going to be a night of nostalgia.
“Just having us as an organization paying tribute to our roots is special. And with our fans, a lot of them were here and started as Ice Pilots fans and they are now our Ice Flyers fans. I think for people to be able for our players in Ice Pilots jerseys on the ice again in Pensacola will be great.”
The Ice Pilots ushered hockey into Pensacola in 1996 as an East Coast Hockey League member.
“I get asked fairly often why hockey is so popular in Pensacola, why does it work?” Harris said. “I think part of it is from the first couple seasons with the Ice Pilots. And everything they were able to generate in the community, the excitement and the success.
“There was a really good foundation that was laid, and we have been able to build off that year after year. Our loyal fans were their loyal fans. The success they have is carried over to the success we have.”
The Ice Pilots in their first two seasons played to sellout crowds and playoff thrills. They reached the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals in 1998 before losing to the Norfolk Admirals. During their history, they were affiliated with four different NHL teams.
The Ice Flyers have followed by going one step further, winning three SPHL President’s Cup titles, including in back-to-back seasons.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Ice Flyers Home Weekend
WHO: Ice Flyers vs. Macon (Friday), vs. Birmingham (Saturday), vs. Huntsville (Sunday).
WHEN: Friday’s game is at 7:35 p.m. Saturday’s game is 7:05 and Sunday is 4:05 p.m.
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center
TICKETS: Available at Bay Center box office and online at www.pensacolaiceflyers.com