PENSACOLA, FL (March, 28, 2019) – The sun was shining and the cool ocean breeze floated through the air this past weekend in Pensacola, Florida. Spring breakers were heading to the beach with their sunscreen and flip flops and the shape of seagulls were silhouetted against the blue sky. From a bystander’s perspective, Pensacola may seem like another normal Florida city. But if you head down Gregory Street and turn into the Pensacola Bay Center, a different scenery emerges.
Deep in the halls of the Pensacola Bay Center, a chilly draft starts to waft down the corridors and the sound of whistles and cheers echoes off the halls. Keep walking into the center, and you will hear the sharp sound of skates cutting into ice and the unmistakable chime of a puck ringing off a cross bar. For 10 years now, the Pensacola Bay Center has been the home of professional ice hockey team, the Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Hockey began thriving in Pensacola in the 1990s when an ECHL team, the Pensacola Ice Pilots, came to town. But, when the team fizzled out, the Ice Flyers emerged as a Southern Professional Hockey (SPHL) team in 2009. The Pensacola Ice Flyers have turned this beach town into a hockey town and their fanbase is thriving.
As the Ice Flyers grew in popularity, the team made their mark on the hearts of the locals. With the support of the local population, the Ice Flyers came to play and stay, and now, they had the opportunity to celebrate their 10th anniversary this past weekend.
Many teams have joined the SPHL but not all have what it takes to remain in the league. For the Ice Flyers or any team in the league, celebrating a 10th anniversary is an impressive accomplishment.
Behind the Ice Flyers 10th anniversary is the support of the fans, the sweat of the players’ hard work and the dedication and passion of the team staff. To commemorate this accomplishment, the Ice Flyers put together a special weekend celebration for the weekend of March 22 – March 23.
The 10th anniversary weekend began on Friday with the team preparing to take on the Macon Mayhem for a two-game home weekend series. Speciality jerseys featuring a sleek, modern grey and blue design were shipped in to be worn by the players and team staff for the duration of the weekend and games. Walking into the Ice Flyers’ main office, you could see the team staff excitedly running around prepping for the weekend’s games in their one-of-a-kind jerseys with their last names on the back.
Before the game started, there was a room in the arena full of Ice Flyers player alumni who came to Pensacola for this special weekend, including Dan Buccella, Adam Pawlick and Drew Baker. They too were in the 10th anniversary jerseys, happily chatting with one another and exchanging tales of their time together on the ice.
Buccella, who now lives in Gulf Breeze, Florida, shared one particularly memorable experience when the Ice Flyers won the SPHL President’s Cup and had the privilege of being the first Pensacola player to ever lift the cup.
“Looking back, being the first Ice Flyer to lift the cup has been one the best moments in my career, especially here when it wasn’t been done before,” said Buccella. “It definitely had a special effect to it being a full house and the people and fans of Pensacola deserved it to be happening here in Pensacola.”
Many of the alumni players are now married or have significant others, some have kids and others have moved onto jobs outside of hockey. Despite the changes that may have occurred in the lives, they still have a bond that was forged on the ice of Pensacola Bay Center years ago.
For the alumni, being back in the arena as a fan instead of a player allowed them to view the fans, game and environment in a new light.
“Now, it’s kind of a different perspective being able to sit with the fans and watch it from the outside in,” said Buccella. “It’s been great to talk to fans, get their feedback and understand how they see the game and how we impacted so many peoples lives when we didn’t even realize when we were playing. The fans have even more memories of us than I’d ever think.”
As the alumni players introduced each other to their family and loved ones, the current Ice Flyers were just down the hall in their locker room preparing for their game. The buzz of skates being sharpened could be heard in the background and the laughter of the players as they played sewer ball, a variation of soccer, next to the ice.
Around 7:35 p.m. on Friday, the lights dimmed, the arena was bustling with energy of the fans and the announcer began to read off the starting lineups. The home team skated onto the ice, the puck dropped and the home team faced off against the Macon Mayhem. The Ice Flyers played hard, scored two goals, and their goaltender, Brian Billett, kept the Mayhem scoreless which led the home team to a 2-0 shutout victory to kickoff their 10th anniversary weekend.
On Saturday, the Ice Flyers were once again in game day mode as they took on the Macon Mayhem for game two of their weekend series. However, Saturday’s pregame activities were different than the night before. Saturday marked the day of the 10th anniversary ceremony.
Instead of starting the game after the national anthem, the lights stayed dimmed. The announcer began to read out the names of the all the alumni Ice Flyers in attendance, including the Ice Flyers current assistant coach, Jeremy Gates. The alumni players came out onto the ice to be honored, and Adam Pawlick, former Ice Flyer captain who did not miss a single regular season game in his three years of play, gave a small speech and thanked the Ice Flyers and owner, Greg Harris, for this opportunity to bring together Ice Flyers of past and present.
Pawlick, who was awarded the Kevin Swider Leading Scorer Award for 66 points in 56 games, also noticed the contrast between being a player and being an alumnus.
“As a player, you show up, you come in the back door, you put your gear on, you come on the ice, you come off the ice, you leave out the back door,” said Pawlick. “You don’t really notice how people show up early and how dedicated they are, the jerseys in the stands, because you’re focused on doing your job when your here when your here.”
Following the ceremony, the game began and the home team battled with the Mayhem. The score remained at zero until the home team slipped one in the net in the third period. Macon retaliated with a goal of their own, but with the crowd’s support behind them, the Ice Flyers found momentum and scored two more goals to close out the game in a 3-1 victory.
While this past weekend was a successful one for the current Ice Flyers team after collecting a pair of wins, the players of the past had a rare chance to be together in a place that is home to many memorable experiences. Playing a professional sport in a beach town sounds like a dream, but for these players, it was their reality.
“There’s kids who are six-years old who play this sport and look up to NHL guys and say I want to play professional hockey and we were given that opportunity to play professional hockey and we we got paid to do something we loved,” said Pawlick.
When looking back and reminiscing on his time on the team, Pawlick continued to offer a few words of wisdom to current players: enjoy the time on the ice.
“At the end of the day you went home and you were tired, and it’s fun to look back and be like, ‘I thought I was tired then and I thought I had it rough then, but I got play a sport that I love’,” Pawlick said. “I got to enjoy work everyday and I think just embrace it. Enjoy the moment and take it day by day because it doesn’t last forever.”
Although time as a player does not last forever, many valuable life lessons can be learned from being on a team. The jump from a career in hockey and into the workforce can be a challenge. However, Jeremy Gates, who was an Ice Flyers player during all three championship seasons and current Ice Flyers assistant coach, believes that the skills needed to succeed on a professional team can lead to success in the workforce.
“Transitioning from a hockey career into a post playing career can be a difficult thing. The best advice I would give current players about the transition is to trust your gut,” said Gates. “Use the valuable lessons the game of hockey teaches you, being a person with integrity and working hard through any sort of adversity. Ride your highs with perspective and grind hard through the lows to limit them.”
It is easy to see how hockey makes a major impact on both players past and present. This anniversary weekend created a rare opportunity where players and alumni could interact with fans, stroll down memory lane and rekindle the bonds that originated in Pensacola years ago.
“Seeing old teammates at alumni weekend was special….To visit and get messages from other Ice Flyer alumni during the weekend brought up great memories that we were able to share smiles and enjoy each other’s company,” said Gates. “I consider myself lucky that I was able to play with and stay in touch with teammates that are quality hockey players and solid people in society.”
This 10th anniversary weekend was a sentimental and monumental experience. The current Ice Flyers had a tremendous weekend of play and the alumni had the chance to be back in their old stomping grounds. Together, a team celebrated 10 years of success. A decade’s worth of sweat, cheers and hard work deserves to be honored.