Photos by Vanessa Johnson
PENSACOLA, FLA – The place is quiet except for a few murmurs. None of the people are familiar yet some of the faces seem quite recognizable. Still, there is a feeling like being in one’s own living room, safe and comfortable.
Then out of nowhere, the room fills with noise. The Pensacola Ice Flyers have just come on the big screen at New York Nick’s, a Pensacola restaurant that shows a live feed of the away games. In an instant, the strangers have been transformed into a jubilant die-hard hockey family cheering on the team.
Pensacola fans are second to none. They pack the Pensacola Bay Center (also known as The Hangar) for home games, averaging 3,776 fans per game to lead the SPHL with just over 1,000 more seats filled than the current league average of 2,745. The Ice Flyers also hold the single playoff game attendance record of 5,630 for an April 2012 President’s Cup championship contest against the Columbus Cottonmouths.
Even more impressive, although from a less statistical view, is the morale and attendance for away games. Last season, Ice Flyers fans filled 2 buses to travel to Biloxi as well as one bus to Huntsville during the playoffs followed by a convoy of cars. For the autograph session following the Nov. 17 contest with the Mississippi Surge, the line of fans was wrapped halfway around the concourse. Fans young and old were eager to snap up Ice Flyers merchandise that day so that they could collect signatures from each and every member of the team.
When asked about the support they get from the fans, each and every Ice Flyers player will tell you that they have the best fans in the league.
“The fans in Pensacola are the best fans in the SP. They support us every day whether we see them or not. They’re loud and great to play in front of. They make us feel very welcome and make playing here a great time,” winger Justin Alonzo said. “It’s easy to get up for home games because the fans are always loud; so we have more jump to us. They make it feel like home away from home, and that’s all we can ask from them.”
Many of the fans date back to the days when Pensacola was part of the ECHL. Most of them agree that the bonding between the fans and players that minor league hockey allows makes the relationships special.
“I’ve been attending the games since we were the Pensacola Ice Pilots,” fan Wesley Goleaton said. “The fans are totally energized by the players and it’s meant a great deal to the city since we brought home the trophy last season.”
Allen Smyth of Pensacola agreed with Goleaton when asked about the player-fan relationship.
“The players connect with the fans here,” he said.
The Ice Flyers organization is certainly appreciative of the support from its fans and the community. The team is bringing up to 20,000 pounds of real snow to Old Seville Square and Bartram Park in Pensacola for the first Blizzard on the Beach 5K fun run and Snow Party Event that will take place Saturday, December 7th . Prior to Thanksgiving on November 25th, the Ice Flyers helped “Fill the Mayflower,” a donation drive in association with a local food bank called MANNA.
In their off time, the players also like to go out on the town and enjoy the social scene. If you’re really lucky, you might catch sight of a player doing something like singing karaoke in any one of a number of Pensacola Beach establishments.
With the Flyers right on the heels of the top spot in the league again after last year’s championship, the palm trees blowing in the gulf breezes now paint a picture that is dripping in irony because Pensacola has become an ice town.