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Boldly Jacksonville: A Look Back at the Teams that Encompass Jacksonville’s Storied Hockey History

Friday, December 30th
Boldly Jacksonville:  A Look Back at the Teams that Encompass Jacksonville’s Storied Hockey History

Boldly Jacksonville, Presented by SwisherVolume 1:  A Look Back at the Teams that Encompass Jacksonville’s Storied Hockey History

On October 14, 2017, the Jacksonville Icemen took the ice against Orlando Solar Bears for their inaugural game.  A rowdy crowd of 8,956 at Veterans Memorial Arena witnessed exciting goals, big hits and of course a great fight, but the Icemen fell in overtime by a 5-4 score.  Despite the loss, fans were given that opportunity to feel the emotion and excitement of hockey again.  A feeling that had been lost for nearly a decade.   For many fans in attendance that evening, the game of hockey was nothing new to them, for Jacksonville had been home to a long line of professional hockey clubs over the past few decades. 

This article is the first of a new monthly series called “Boldly Jacksonville – The History of Hockey in North Florida”, presented by Swisher.  This series will highlight and feature some of the stories of the teams, players and staff that played a part in Jacksonville’s hockey past and present. 

In this first installment, we will give a chronological introduction of all the hockey teams that represented the Bold City over the years. 

Jacksonville Rockets (1964-1972)League: Eastern Hockey LeagueArena:  Jacksonville ColiseumColors:  Orange, White, BlueThe Rockets were the first hockey team in Jacksonville.  In fact, the Rockets were the first professional hockey team in Florida’s history.   The team had a tough start the first two years, posting nearly identical records of 13 wins and 57 losses in back-to-back years.  The team became the Florida Rockets from 1966-1968, before becoming the Jacksonville Rockets again from 1968-1972.   The team at one point was coached by Bob Sabourin, who would later take an ownership role at Jacksonville Ice, also commonly known as Skate World.

Jacksonville Barons (1973-1974)League: American Hockey League (AHL)Arena:  Jacksonville ColiseumColors: Royal Blue, White

The Barons franchise was initially established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, as the Indians before briefly taking on the name Falcons before becoming the Barons in 1936.  The club became one of the most successful teams in American Hockey League history, winning nine Calder Cups and boasted stacked NHL-caliber rosters.  As a result, Cleveland almost became the NHL’s seventh team.  

The addition of a World Hockey Association (WHA) team called the Cleveland Crusaders, would eventually force the Barons out of Cleveland in the middle the 1972-1973 season, as it became apparent that two pro hockey teams in Cleveland was not going to work.  Team owner Nick Mileti made the decision to move the Barons midseason to Jacksonville in February 1973.   Initially, the First Coast came out in high numbers to support the AHL’s Barons, with over 9,100 fans packing the Jacksonville Coliseum for the first game.  Due to scheduling issues, the new Jacksonville team had to play three of their 19 remaining games back in Cleveland.  

The team was coached by John Muckler, who would later become a well-known NHL general manager. However, as a coach, Muckler’s team struggled mightily for a season and a half in Jacksonville.   Despite the AHL’s higher level of talent and competition, the team’s on-ice woes took their toll on the fan base and attendance declined sharply.  Citing significant financial losses following the 1973-1974 season, owner Nick Mileti was forced to shut down the longstanding Barons franchise for good.  The end of the Barons also marked the end of professional hockey in the State of Florida until the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning arrived on the scene in 1992. 

Jacksonville Bullets (1992-1996)League:  Sunshine Hockey League / Southern Hockey League (SHL)Arena: Jacksonville Coliseum / Skate WorldColors:  Black, Gold, White

For the first time since 1974, hockey returned to Northeast Florida as the Jacksonville Bullets were founded as one of six teams in the inaugural season of the Sunshine Hockey League (SHL).  After an average first year of floating around the .500 mark, the team excelled in year two, reaching the league finals against the West Palm Beach Blaze.  The team eventually fell in the finals, but despite the team’s success, attendance woes and financial setbacks plagued the team throughout their time in Jacksonville.

The team was eventually purchased by the owners of Skate World, including former Jacksonville Rockets Head Coach Bob Sabourin.  The new ownership kept the team running in the league, which became the Southern Hockey League in 1995.   However, fans quickly lost interest in the team due to the announcement of a newer team coming to Jacksonville, the Lizard Kings.   The prospect of a more reputable league in the ECHL and a lease with the Coliseum, the Lizard Kings were a more attractive option to hockey fans in the region.   Despite the news, the Bullets played out the 1995-1996 season, but with the new ECHL franchise taking off, the Bullets officially ceased operations in 1996. 

Jacksonville Lizard Kings (1995-2000)League:  ECHLArena:  Jacksonville Coliseum, AKA “The Reptilian Pavilion”Colors:  Black, Green, Purple

The arrival of the Lizard Kings came with a lot of excitement for hockey fans.  A new team, in a more recognized and established league, debuted in Jacksonville with a creative marketing campaign.   The team produced a television commercial featuring a goalie catching a puck with a lizard tongue.  Initially, the organization did have to compete with another hockey team in the market, the Jacksonville Bullets, which eventually folded in 1996.  

On the ice, the Lizard Kings found immediate success on the ice in their inaugural season, reaching the ECHL Finals.  Despite an incredible playoff run, the team was swept by the Charlotte Checkers in the championship round.  The team would only make the playoffs one more time during its five years of existence.   

From 1996-1998, the Lizard Kings were coached by Bruce Cassidy who went on to become the head coach for the NHL’s Boston Bruins for six seasons and is currently the bench boss for Vegas Golden Knights.  Cail Maclean, who holds the fourth most points in Lizard King History (122 pts) is currently an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames.  Meanwhile current Savanah Ghost Pirates Head Coach, Rick Bennett, played two seasons with the Lizard Kings posting 118 points which is good for fifth most in club history. 

Despite their marketing efforts and sporting a popular name and logo, the Lizard Kings had difficulty covering their operating costs, losing just over $2 million in four years.   The team folded in 2000 after five seasons.

Jacksonville Hammerheads (1998-2000)League:  Southern Elite Hockey LeagueArena:  Jacksonville IceColors:  Teal, Green, GrayThe Jacksonville Hammerheads were a junior hockey team that competed in the Southern Elite Hockey League for two seasons. The league was an independent Jr. A hockey league that was based in Florida and Alabama.   The team was coached by Brett Strot who played for both the Lizard Kings and the Barracudas.  Notable alumni that went on to play professional hockey is former Greenville Swamp Rabbits Head Coach Kevin Carr (CHL, ECHL) and Sean Honeysett (UHL). 

Jacksonville Barracudas (2002-2008)League:  Atlantic Coast Hockey League (ACHL) World H Hockey Association 2 (WHA3), Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL)Arena: Jacksonville Coliseum, Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville IceColors: Navy Blue, Red

Following the loss of the Lizard Kings, hockey fans in North Florida didn’t have to wait too long for the return of professional hockey, as the Barracudas arrived on the scene as members of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League in 2002.  The team hired longtime New York Ranger and NHL veteran Ron Duguay as head coach and the team found some early success, becoming the only Jacksonville hockey team to win a championship, taking the WHA2 title in 2003.  The team also reached the SPHL finals in 2007 and 2008. 

The team’s original owner was David Waronker, who also happened to own three other teams in the ACHL.   Waronker became weary of the ACHL’s stability and pulled all four of his teams out of the league and placed them in his newly created WHA2 league, which was supposed to serve as a developmental league of the reincarnation of the Western Hockey Association (WHA), rumored to return.  However, the WHA did not make a return, and the WHA2 struggled and in 2004, Waronker’s four teams joined the Southern Professional Hockey League and Waronker sold the Barracudas to a group of local investors headed by Steve Croskrey.  

The Barracudas had modest attendance numbers in the first two seasons in the SPHL, averaging just below 3,000 fans in 2005-06.  However, during the next two seasons an improvement in the standings saw the team’s attendance swing upward.   The Barracudas reached the 2007 playoffs and ended up advancing to the SPHL Finals against the Fayetteville FireAntz who defeated Jacksonville in the series 3-1.  

The team seemed to be trending in the right direction with on-ice success and rising attendance. The team orchestrated schedule changes that allowed for more games to be played after football season.  Despite the uptick in attendance, management at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena had concerns that the team’s revenue numbers were simply too low to continue setting up the facility for hosting hockey.   The arena offered an annual lease that the team could not afford, and the team relocated their operations to Jacksonville Ice, a recreational ice rink with the ability to seat up to 900 spectators. 

In 2007-2008, the team reached the SPHL finals for a second straight year, but team fell to the Knoxville Ice Bears.  This would be the final time the Barracudas would take the ice, as the smaller playing venue made it difficult for the team to remain financially viable, and the team suspended operations after the season, signaling the end of professional hockey in Jacksonville for almost a decade. 

Jacksonville Icemen (2017-Present)League:  ECHLArena:  Veterans Memorial ArenaColors:  Navy Blue, Columbia Blue, White

In November of 2015, Evansville Icemen owner Ron Geary attempted to negotiate a new arena lease agreement with the City of Evansville, Indiana.  When negotiations failed the following March, Geary announced that the team would be relocating to Owensboro, Kentucky and the team would be dormant for the 2016-17 season while the Owensboro Sportscenter arena was being completed.  When the City of Owensboro announced that a different management company would be taking over the arena, Geary informed the city of Owensboro that he would not be purchasing the Sportscenter due to higher costs to refurbish the venue.   Geary then sold a portion of the franchise to a group in Jacksonville, while remaining as the majority owner.  On February 8, 2017, the relocation of the Icemen to Jacksonville was approved by the ECHL Board of Governors, and the Jacksonville Icemen and the return of pro hockey to the First Coast was official.  

The team hired the winningest coach in ECHL history, Jason Christie as its first head coach.   Later, the team announced an NHL affiliation with the Winnipeg Jets.   The team was an instant success in the community, as hockey-starved fans packed the Veterans Memorial Arena and the team displayed above average attendance numbers despite a rather slow start on the ice.  Despite this, fans were happy that hockey was back and were pleased with the product.   

The Icemen made a big jump in year two, reaching the playoffs.   However, it was the jump made off the ice the following summer that brought the team to new heights.  Ron Geary sold his controlling interests in the team to Jacksonville resident Andy Kaufmann on July 16, 2019.   Since then, Kaufmann has brought on several other local investors, including former MLB All-Star Daniel Murphy and NFL names such as Tim Tebow, Myles Jack and Reggie Hayward.  In addition to several other local investors, the group purchased the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex and with help from the city, a multi-million dollar renovation project began in August of 2021.  The facility, now called the Community First Igloo, is nearing completion and will further put a hockey footprint in the market.  In October of 2021, the team announced a five-year lease extension agreement with the city to keep the team in Jacksonville through 2030-2031 season.  

In June of 2021, the Icemen entered into a two-year affiliation agreement with the New York Rangers.  Several months later, the Icemen hosted the 2022 ECHL All-Star Classic and fan fest which brought national attention to the team and to the region.  

 In July of 2021, Head coach Jason Christie was named assistant coach to the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.  Christie was replaced by first-year coach Nick Luukko, who guided the Icemen to a club best 40-win season, while the team won its first playoff series, ousting the Atlanta Gladiators in four games in the 2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs. 

With a competitive team, rising attendance model and a new ice facility to grow the game of hockey in the area, the Icemen have proven that professional hockey is here to stay in Jacksonville. 

#LitesOut

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