Boldly Jacksonville, Presented by SwisherVolume 2:A Look Back at the Lizard Kings' Memorable Run to the ECHL Finals in First Season.
The arrival of the ECHL’s Jacksonville Lizard Kings came with a lot of excitement for hockey fans along the First Coast. A new team, in a more recognized and established league, debuted in Jacksonville with a creative marketing campaign. The team even produced a television commercial featuring a goalie catching a puck with a lizard tongue that caught the attention of the hockey world.
One of the prominent players of that inaugural Lizard Kings team was forward Rick Bennett who posted 62 points with 28 goals and 182 penalty minutes during that first season. Bennett recalls the moment he signed with the team.
“I remember that I signed at a time when we had just had our second child. Jeff Brubaker was the coach at the time, and he brought me on. After I signed, there wasn’t a whole lot of news about the team until the jersey and logo was unveiled and it was pretty special. At that time, it was one of the number one selling jerseys.”
As the season progressed, and the team began to string some wins together the attendance began to climb. However, Bennett credited the team’s front office for setting up community initiatives to help drive some PR for the team.
“It started pretty slow, and we needed to get integrated into the community,’ said Bennett. “We did an event with the Jaguars giving out toys for kids. It was a lot of fun, and using the Jaguars put us on the map a bit. After that, the support was phenomenal and you felt like you were bigger than the Jaguars because they were done playing, and you were still playing, and the playoff run we had was incredible. It was one of the most memorable runs I have been a part of.”
And a memorable run it was for the Lizard Kings, that followed a modest 33-29-0-8 record in the regular season. A season that Bennett remembers as having a revolving door of roster moves just to find the right fit of players.
“Jeff Brubaker did a phenomenal job throughout the year. I think I remember counting something like him making 18 trades or so until he got it right and got the right guys. I recall Jeff trading someone who was the captain / player-coach and so he gave me that honor. Then the team got fined by the league for that because you can’t do that. Eventually those things came together at the right time through solid goaltending. We didn’t have any superstars; it was just a bunch of guys who had a lot of fun together both on and off the ice and worked tremendously hard when we played”
After all the moves, things started to click with the group. Before the team knew it, they were knocking out some of the top-seeded teams in the ECHL Riley Cup Playoffs. The Lizard Kings squeaked by the Louisiana Ice Gators in five games and then ousted the Richmond Renegades in four games in the second round. The team faced the Toledo Storm in the semifinal round and edged out another series victory in five games to advance to the ECHL finals against the Charlotte Checkers. While Bennett himself boasted 15 points (5g, 13a) in 18 playoff games, he credits several of his former teammates for their role for the deep playoff run.
“There were a bunch of guys who made an impact. Mike McLaughlin came in from the AHL, he was excellent down the stretch. Ed Courtenay came in late as well, and Mark DeSantis was the best defenseman in the entire league. He was probably the closest thing to a Scott Stevens that you could find. Kurt Mallett was another, and he and I still talk to this day. We both say it was one, if not the best time we had playing hockey was playing for the Jacksonville Lizard Kings during that 1995-96 season. What hurt us down the stretch was Brian Renfrew got hurt going into the finals with his shoulder and we were just so beat up from all of the hard-work in the previous rounds”
The loss of goaltender Brian Renfrew was too much for the Lizard Kings to overcome in the finals. Renfrew had appeared in 16 of the 18 playoff games played by the team, and the Charlotte Checkers swept Jacksonville in four games to put an end to the magical run in the team’s Inaugural season. For the players, it signaled the end of the comradery they had built throughout the season.
“It was unfortunate that we had to go back home after the season,” said Bennett. “It is the ECHL, we had other jobs lined up in the summer time. If you asked all of us, and if I wasn’t married and if the other guys didn’t have other summer jobs, we all would have stayed in town that summer and just had a blast.”
The Lizard Kings would only qualify for the playoffs one more time in their five-year history. The team eventually ceased operations in 2000.
As for Bennett, he would return for a second season in Jacksonville the following year in 1996-97, and would finish fifth overall in team history with 118 points in 131 games played. After a few more years of playing in the ECHL for the Pee Dee Pride, Bennett transitioned into coaching. He spent over 17 years at Union College as an assistant and head coach and won an NCAA National Championship in 2014.
And now, years later, Bennett returns to the ECHL to join yet another first-year team as the head coach of the Savannah Ghost Pirates. In his first two games coaching against the Jacksonville Icemen in the Bold City, Bennett was brought down memory lane.
“The first time I came back, you are so focused on the game that I didn’t even think about it. Then after the game, I saw some people and that jarred the memory a bit. The second time I came, I did think about it more. Maybe it was Mike Mclaughlin reminding me about our time there. It’s ironic that in my second game, there was a couple behind our bench with a Lizard Kings hat that asked me to sign it. It was pretty humbling and at the same token I was honored to do it. I was happy to see that people still remembered those days, because it was a great time playing here.”
To this day, Jacksonville hockey fans reminisce about the Lizard Kings and pay homage to a unique name and logo, which even inspired the Jacksonville Icemen to put on an annual Lizard Kings Night to offer up some nostalgia for those fans to remember their days at the ole’ Reptilian Pavilion.