The day after Christmas has annually brought Pensacola Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris an overtime of good vibe.
Back in his native Canada, it’s called Boxing Day, a tradition on Dec. 26 with origin of giving gifts to the needy and now celebrated through Canada as a second holiday with shopping and hockey games mixed in with family visits.
This year, this moment, was different.
“I am going through all sorts of emotions right now,” said Harris, a Manitoba native and now transplanted Pensacola resident. “There is a ton of excitement.”
The Ice Flyers began a new season Saturday night on the road against the Birmingham Bulls in the Pelham Civic Center. On Dec. 30, the Ice Flyers face the Bulls again in their first home game, complete with the newly installed video boards at the Bay Center that promise a whole different kind of fan experience.
All of this follows months of hopeful planning and precautions within the Southern Professional Hockey League to play a shortened season, amid dealing with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Ice Flyers and Bulls are part of five teams, all in the SPHL’s South Division, who came together to formulate a plan and path to navigate a 42-game schedule in the next three months.
“I have a really good feeling about it,” Harris said. “We have 22 pages of protocol from the league to follow. And we have another seven pages on top of that for our own team and more pages for the building (Bay Center).
“We feel as a league, the Ice Flyers as an organization, and within the Bay Center that we have developed, extremely well thought out plans, to make the season happen.”
The five SPHL teams – Macon (Ga.) Mayhem, Huntsville Havoc and Knoxville Ice Bears being the others – each will have their own restrictions on fan seating within the arenas.
The Ice Flyers are limiting ticket sales to 3,200 at the Bay Center. It’s far less than half capacity. Fans will be spaced in designated “pods” from one to six people in the lower and upper bowls of the arena.
“There are no seats to be purchased that are stacked on top of each other,” Harris said. “Or immediately to the right or left of each other.”
As for the hockey itself, expectations are high. The Ice Flyers return head coach Rod Aldoff, who begins a sixth season behind the bench.
The returning players include both goaltenders from last season, Chase Perry and Jake Kupsky, along with team captain Garrett Milan and assistant captain Patrick Megannety. They are joined by four players Aldoff signed from the Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen – one of the SPHL North Division teams not playing this season.
One of those players is forward Alec Hagaman, an assistant captain, who produced 23 goals and 29 assists in 44 games last season for Peoria. Another is Nick Neville, the SPHL defenseman of the year last season.
“It is going to be so much fun to watch all these guys,” Harris said. “The skill level will be so high, probably the highest we have ever had here. And we’ve had some really good teams.
“This is basically going to be five all-star teams within our league. We feel like we have a great base of returning guys and the players we brought in from Peoria and other teams who know our mentality well.”
The game Saturday night at Birmingham, followed by the Dec. 30 home opener will be the Ice Flyers first games since the first weekend of March in 2020.
The Ice Flyers played a trio of home games against the Fayetteville (N.C.) Marksmen on March 6-8 before the league was forced the suspend operations in the first onslaught of COVID-19.
Since then, it has been a long wait and plenty of uncertainty on how an SPHL season would happen.
“We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel here,” Harris said. “Any organization knows that on opening night, there is a very busy time leading up to it.
“But it is definitely exciting to drop the puck for the first time in nine months. I know (Saturday night) is going to be a very great experience for everyone. And I can’t wait to see that puck drop here at the Bay Center on the 30th.”
ICE FLYERS OPENING WEEK
DEC. 30: Home Opener Vs. Birmingham.
WHEN: 7:05 p.m.
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center
TICKETS: Prices begin at $18 with group and season-ticket packages available as well.