By Bill Vilona
Ice Flyers Correspondent
The bus trip back to Pensacola took all night and came with little sleep.
No one with the Ice Flyers minded, of course.
They were riding on euphoria. The kind of joy only winning a championship brings.
“I probably slept an hour,” said Ice Flyers team captain Garrett Milan, laughing. “It was a good time. This is what’s exciting. These are the fun moments.”
The Ice Flyers got the party started inside their visitors dressing room at the Macon Centreplex, following their 4-1 win against the Macon Mayhem that clinched the President’s Cup title May 15 in Macon, Ga. The Champagne popped and sprayed; the jubilation flowed.
The fun moments have since carried for days, including Tuesday’s celebration with Ice Flyers fans at the Pensacola Bay Center.
For the first time all year, Ice Flyers faithful will be able to get an autograph, a picture or just greet with congratulations, following a season navigated through the coronavirus pandemic.
It is the fourth Southern Professional Hockey League title in franchise history. The Ice Flyers are now tied with the Knoxville Ice Bears for most championships in league history.
This one occurred in the strangest of seasons and maybe in the strangest of ways.
The Ice Flyers went two months without a home win, had to battle in the final weeks to be among the top four teams qualifying for the playoffs.
But they made it. And then did it. Won it all.
“All of them you will never forget, but this is one that definitely rises to the top,” said Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris. “And it’s because of everything we had to go through as a team, as an organization, as a league to be able to put on a season.
“And then we had to battle through a lot of adversity, lot of setbacks, roster changes, injuries. The staff stepped up and the players did amazing things in mid-season.
“It is unbelievably special.”
The unique element about this one, of course, is that it happened during COVID-19 limitations. The SPHL agreed to play a shortened season (42 games), beginning Dec. 30, and with only the five South Division teams competing.
The Ice Flyers endured tough stretches, along with an assortment of injuries and goaltenders getting called up to the higher-lever ECHL.
But in the record books, it’s a championship all the same.
“We knew we had a good enough team to win it right from day one, so once we got everyone healthy and got everyone in place, we just started to roll,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff. “It was a matter of getting that rhythm back. We knew we had team to do it.”
Harris received a phone call shortly after the cup-clinching win in Macon, Georgia from Pensacola Blue Wahoos president Jonathan Griffith. He invited the Ice Flyers players and staff to enjoy Sunday’s baseball game at the ballpark and get honored on the field.
A quick acceptance followed.
“I went back in and told the boys (players) and they were ecstatic about it,” Harris said. “This is a pretty special thing to have the two pro teams in Pensacola work so closely together and truly respect each other.
“Because when it comes right down to it, we are all in this together. And right with the situation (COVID-19) it is not an easy process to put on games. So this is just great to be out here together.”
The Ice Flyers championship surge began from improbable position. They had lost six of seven games between a stretch from April 2 to April 20 before peaking at the right time.
They won their three of their last four games to end the regular-season and never looked back, sweeping the semifinal series against second-place finisher Knoxville.
The Ice Flyers beat the Ice Bears in back-to-back home games to end their regular-season home schedule at the Bay Center, then won a pair in the playoff matchup. They started the playoffs as a third-place finisher.
“We believed in each other,” Aldoff said. “The standings didn’t matter.”
One of the biggest factors was getting veteran winger Alec Hagaman back from a foot injury that sidelined him for nearly two months. Hagaman was a big presence in the playoffs, scoring three goals including two in the team’s win Friday against Macon at the Bay Center.
Goaltender Jake Kupsky became the mainstay stopper and got hot in the playoffs.
“We came out with some urgency and knew we could do it,” said Milan, who won his. “We were firing on all cylinders in the playoffs. We were really confident. We got hot at the right time.
“Obviously in this league, you don’t win a lot of games in the playoffs, but you need to win those close ones and that’s what we did a good job of.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Ice Flyers Celebration Party
WHEN: Tuesday, 6:15 p.m.
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center
WHO: Entire team, coaches, front office staff.
FORMAT: There will be a reception outside the arena on the plaza in front of the box office with all the players, coaches and team personnel. Fans will be able to get autographs, photos and visit with the team unlike any point during the regular season. Everyone will then go inside the arena for a 7 p.m. program with each player introduced and video highlights, plus short speeches from team members.
A LOOK BACK: ICE FLYERS PLAYOFF RUN
May 7 – Ice Flyers 5, Knoxville Ice Bears 2 (at Knoxville, Tenn.)
May 8 – Ice Flyers 4, Ice Bears 2 (at Pensacola Bay Center)
May 14 – Ice Flyers 4, Macon Mayhem 2 (at Bay Center)
May 15 – Ice Flyers 4, Mayhem 1 (at Macon, Ga.)
ICE FLYERS CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES HISTORY
2013 – Beat Huntsville Havoc (2 games to 1), Gary Graham head coach
2014 – Beat Columbus Cottonmouths 2-0, Rod Aldoff coach
2016 – Beat Peoria Riverman 3-0, Rod Aldoff coach
2021 – Beat Macon Mayhem 2-0, Rod Aldoff coach
2012 – Lost 2-0 to Columbus Cottonmouths, Gary Graham head coach