PENSACOLA, FLA – With number one ranked Pensacola set to begin their shot at a repeat against the Mississippi Surge on Thursday, the Ice Flyers come into the first playoff round with some pretty impressive credentials. Coming out of the gate this season with three straight wins, they slumped to 6-6-1 through November. From that point on, the afterburners kicked in.
Ending the Thunder’s season in Bloomington on Saturday night with a punishing 6-1 victory, the Ice Flyers have only three losses since Jan. 24 – all in overtime. They set four SPHL league records: most points in a regular season (81), most wins in a regular season (38), most consecutive games without a regulation loss (22), and a record 11 game winning streak. The Ice Flyers have allowed only 13 goals in those 11 contests with no more than two in any one game. The Pensacola fans have also outdone themselves, setting two SPHL attendance records with an average per game of 4,091 and a total attendance mark of 114,537.
The Flyers came from third place to win last year, so any talk of a repeat at this point is probably bad hockey karma. I thought it would be a good idea, however, to get some thoughts and memories from some of last year’s players on what it was like to win a championship.
“Going into that final game I can’t remember ever being so nervous in my life. I usually don’t have any problem going down for my pre-game nap, but for that game I was wide awake the entire time just laying in bed thinking about the moment before us,” Jordan Chong, last season’s second leading scorer, said. “I absolutely miss playing, especially seeing how well the team is doing and how the fans have continued to rally around the team. I really miss competing at that high level in front of such an amazing, loyal fan base. I also really miss the brotherhood with my teammates. I miss it all! I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about coming back. I definitely get the itch quite a bit. It’s time to move on, but I’m never one to say never.”
Netminder Gerry Festa, who was a member the CHL champion Ft. Wayne Komets from 2011-2012 and ventured to Pensacola to win last year’s cup, said that both titles had one thing in common – the locker room bond.
“Both of my championships were very special,” he said. “You don’t realize as you are going through the process how important it is. The team is so focused. Then when it’s all said and done, you know that the memories and relationships that come with winning the trophy will last a lifetime. My best memory was that first hour with just the team, staff, immediate family, and people you love in the locker room. Everyone’s smiling – cigars and champagne everywhere. You are with the people who matter the most and have sacrificed so much to help you and the team reach your goal.”
Brad Cooper, defenseman for last year’s team, said that the relationship the team has with its fans made last year’s President’s Cup win memorable.
“Being able to win a championship in my home state with a first class organization like the Pensacola Ice Flyers was a dream come true. I will always remember the electric atmosphere of the Hangar that night and the goosebumps I got when I stepped on the ice,’ he said. “We had an unbelievable group of guys in the locker room and a coach who brought the best out in each and every player. I couldn’t have picked a better city, fans, or organization to share the experience with.”
No one could cherish the victory more than Dan Buccella, whose jersey was ceremoniously retired at the Pensacola Bay Center on January 31st.
“It was a very emotional time. The week before the finals I lost my uncle Paul suddenly. He was a big part of my life, and I felt his presence with me. From a hockey standpoint, I’ve been to the finals in previous years but came up short. I walked away from hockey at that point, feeling empty and unsatisfied about my career,” Buccella recalled. “I was fortunate to have another chance at the President’s Cup when Gary Graham called and asked if would help his team make the push into the playoffs. Everything seemed right. Games we played felt good and we were getting all the right bounces. I was able to contribute and help with some key goals, one of which was the most monumental of my career – an overtime winning shot in the first game of the finals. Our team was clicking and firing on all cylinders. Once we won, I was overwhelmed and the void I was missing in my career was fulfilled. Tyler Soehner, our captain, allow me to raise the President’s Cup first. It was a true honor and a moment I’ll never forget.”
Neither will we.