JACKSONVILLE, FL – The Jacksonville Icemen played their first-ever game in front of a boisterous sold-out crowd on Saturday, and the event provided a long-awaited taste of what professional hockey will offer to fans in north Florida. The announced crowd was 8956, which is nearly 500 over the “capacity” of 8500.
The Orlando Solar Bears brought two full motor coaches of fans to the game, so there was a small but vocal set of supporters for the visiting squad. The result was some spirited, loud cheering that bodes well for the in-state rivalry. Here’s a report card of first impressions indicating what is working in Jacksonville and what the Icemen organization might want to address.
The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena is a great venue for ECHL hockey. Though completed in 2003, the facility has been well maintained. The Solar Bears fans are spoiled by the luxuries of their home ice, the Amway Center, which also houses the Orlando Magic. Compared to the more usual ECHL arenas, the Veterans Memorial Arena stacks up quite well. It has bright lighting, a large Jumbotron, comfortable seats, and a killer sound system. The size is also ideal. The concourse was crowded between periods and could use some freshening up, but they had enough food and drink stations to serve the fans even if there was some jostling.
Sound, Video, and Broadcast
Another thing I was impressed by was the camera work on the broadcast. The quality of the picture is comparable to the best HD in the ECHL, which signifies that the organization put a lot of money into ensuring their broadcast was up to date. The camera operators and control booth were also on their game when it came to the video.
The sound system in the arena is loud, but there were some technical glitches. Most glaring was the introduction of the Icemen to the rink where the sound cut out, and there were moments throughout the game where volume control was an issue.
The Icemen showed that they are not to be taken lightly. They can exit the defensive zone quickly and easily, and they are adept at getting to the puck on a dump in. They regularly were beating the Solar Bears to the puck during races. These are both examples of the Icemen’s clear strength: speed.
Unlike Orlando, who relied mainly on their defense, the Icemen relied on their quickness to generate scoring opportunities off breakaways and break-ins. While the Solar Bears didn’t move into their zone as fast as the Icemen, once in their zone, they were able to generate their scoring opportunities off rebounds and redirections.
The Icemen organization was wise when it went with Jason Christie as its first head coach. With 547 career wins, Christie holds the title of winningest coach in the ECHL. The ability of the team to hang in and tie things up in the third period, forcing overtime, is a credit to the coach’s ability to motivate and direct.
If the Icemen showed a lapse, it was in their insistence on instigating fights, resulting in one game misconduct and two Orlando power plays. The desire to drop the gloves was evident before the puck even dropped when Icemen captain Garet Hunt was goading Solar Bear forward Joe Perry. Perry refused to take Hunt’s bait, and this erupted in the opening of the second period when Hunt instigated a fight with two blind-side punches and then got ejected from the game for refusing to stop after the referee and linesmen had stepped in.
Mascot, Name, and Logo
The Icemen have transported the name and the logo that the team used when it was in Evansville, and it’s not clear whether Jacksonville will warm up to that name. Understandably, on this inaugural opening night, there weren’t many Icemen shirts or jerseys in evidence.
The mascot Blizzard looked good and had plenty of crowd interaction. But he’s a polar bear, which seems redundant given Shades the Solar Bear who is chilling in Orlando. I would not be surprised if the Jacksonville team gets operations humming and then decides in a couple of years to do a rebranding as the Greenville Swamp Rabbits did in 2015. That would make for some added publicity and give the team an opportunity to decide on a name and a mascot with a stronger local appeal.
The Icemen in their first impression seemed very similar to what the Solar Bears were in 2015-16—a team which relied heavily on speed but lacked when it came to defense. Another item to note is that Orlando was able to gain a dominant lead and have the Icemen play catch-up, despite the slow start at the beginning of the first period.
One of the great things the Icemen have going is the in-state rivalry. The Orlando and Jacksonville fans fed off of each other positively, and it will be interesting to see how the Icemen fare against the Florida Everblades. The front offices of all three teams have to be happy about the reduced travel involved when playing each other, and the players, fans, and coaches should be looking forward to some spirited action on the ice.
As a team, the Icemen are in search of their identity. They have some great agility and a proven coach, but the team seems uncertain of exactly what kind of team it wants to be. If they continue with the plan to drop gloves, they will undermine one of their key strengths. It’s hard to capitalize on your speed when you are playing down a man or short on the bench.
Despite the few technical glitches and the overtime loss, the Jacksonville Icemen should be proud of their inaugural game. Fans on both sides were walking out of Veterans Memorial Arena with smiles and enthusiasm for the return of professional hockey to Jacksonville.
Overall Grade: B