When Jacksonville Icemen president Bob Ohrablo was negotiating the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena lease prior to the inaugural 2017-18 season, a city official with mayor Lenny Curry’s transition team thought another pro hockey team in Duval County was a bad idea.
“He said, ‘You’re crazy, it’s not going to work,’” said Ohrablo.
The city’s history with pro hockey, dating back to the Rockets in 1964-72, provided ample evidence to support that theory. It didn’t work with the Barons, Bullets, Lizard Kings or Barracudas either as none lasted more than eight seasons, and the Rockets briefly bounced around the state playing temporarily at other venues.
But as the roster-churning Icemen approach the midway mark of their fifth year, this looks like a hockey franchise — under 44-year-old owner and longtime Jacksonville resident Andy Kaufmann — that will have staying power.
Icemen games at the Arena are earning a reputation as, well, a cool place to hang out, to enjoy 60 minutes of a fast-paced sport that is much less of a novelty in Florida than it used to be.
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Aside from the Tampa Bay Lightning being back-to-back NHL champions, the Sunshine State has three of the East Coast Hockey League’s 27 franchises (along with the Orlando Solar Bears and Florida Everblades). Another one, the Savannah Ghost Pirates, also owned by Kaufmann, will begin play next season less than three hours from Jacksonville.
Ohrablo, who has 30-plus years managing various pro hockey teams, orchestrated the transfer of the Icemen to Jacksonville five years ago from Evansville (Ind.), then Kaufmann bought the franchise from previous owner Ron Geary in 2019.
Since then, Kaufmann has added 18 minority investors (16 living in Jacksonville), including Jaguars’ linebacker Myles Jack, former Jaguar and next-door-neighbor Reggie Hayward and Florida Gators football icon/Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, to own a piece of the team.
“Tim had never been to a hockey game, but he loved the reputation we had in connecting with the community,” Ohrablo said.
“Pretty elite” hockey environment
Unlike past Jacksonville hockey ownership groups, the Icemen are ascending financially. Kaufmann estimates the franchise is now worth about 50 percent more than his undisclosed purchase price.
The biggest reason, along with the Icemen teaming up to promote a myriad of local charities, is fans have embraced hockey as a legitimate sports entertainment option.
With Icemen season ticket sales around 2,000, the team’s average attendance is third in the ECHL at 5,991 through 16 home dates, behind only the Toledo Walleye (7,654) and Fort Wayne Komets (6,636).
“This organization is top-notch compared to others I’ve played with,” said 35-year-old Icemen forward Joey Sides, who has suited up for seven different ECHL franchises, two European teams and one briefly in the higher-level AHL. “Colorado [Eagles] is one of the best places I’ve ever played and this is right there with it.
“The fan support we get is a big part of our success. They give this building life.”
Atmosphere at Icemen games has the customary music, bells and whistles fans are accustomed to seeing with many minor-league franchises. But the encouraging thing in Jacksonville is attendance has hovered near 6,000 every season regardless of record, the lone exception being the COVID-impaired 2020-21 when it dipped to 3,165 with limited capacity.
When crowds returned to normal levels this season, plus the team being a contender in the ECHL South division, it was further validation of the Icemen likely being a long-term fixture.
“It’s not just the attendance,” Ohrablo said. “The fans here are so passionate about this team and we’ve only been here five years. I’ve been in a lot of ECHL buildings and there’s nothing like this place with the music, the contests and fan experience. Even if you don’t know anything about hockey, you’re going to have fun.”
First-year Icemen coach Nick Luukko, who played four years in the ECHL as a defenseman with the Reading Royals, vividly recalls his only game as a player in Jacksonville on March 2, 2018.
“We got down five goals in the first 10 minutes of the game and this place was on fire,” said Luukko, who picked up 11 minutes in penalties, including five for instigating a fight. “That was the most penalty minutes  I’ve ever had in my life. We got into a lot of fistfights.”
So when Luukko, the youngest coach in the ECHL at 30, landed his first head coaching job in Jacksonville, he didn’t need a scouting report about the home-ice advantage he would enjoy with his new team.
“I’d say as a minor-league hockey environment, this is pretty elite,” said Luukko.
Deep team, balanced scoring
The Icemen (20-9-2, 41 points), who play host to the South Carolina Stingrays on Friday and Saturday, are locked in a tight race for first place in the ECHL South division with the Everblades (43 points) and Atlanta Gladiators (38 points).
Despite having 10 players called up to the AHL since Christmas, the Icemen have managed to remain a strong contender. Under Luukko, who replaced all-time ECHL wins leader Jason Christie after he took an assistant coaching job with the NHL Buffalo Sabres, the Icemen have persevered through significant adversity.
They won nine consecutive games in December. The Icemen also gutted out a 4-3 overtime win on January 5 against the Norfolk Admirals on a Ben Hawerchuk goal, despite playing with just 12 skaters due to COVID-19 absences (Luukko included) and a player getting ejected.
“We’ve got a very deep team,” said Luukko, a 2010 sixth-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers, who opted to play college hockey at the University of Vermont. “We don’t really have a first, second and third lines. Everyone is playing about the same amount of minutes for the most part.”
The team’s top offensive threat (7 goals, 17 assists) is forward Abbott Girduckis, who also scored their first goal Monday in the ECHL All-Star Classic, but there are five other players with at least five goals.
“[Scoring] just comes from everywhere this season,” said Sides. “Different guys step up every game and anybody on the roster is bound to get a goal.”
But the Icemen are winning more with defense than lighting the lamp. Opponents are averaging just 2.34 goals per game, the best mark in the ECHL. Unfortunately, primary goaltender Charles Williams was called up to the AHL Rochester Americans, though he could return once that team or the Buffalo Sabres gets a netminder back from injury.
Still, the Icemen are hoping the momentum from their best start to any season will keep them in league contention. After the Friday-Saturday home matchup with South Carolina, the Icemen face a grueling seven-game road trip, which includes finishing three games in the Mountain time zone against Utah and Idaho.
But with 17 of their last 28 games at home through mid-April — and without NFL football games to compete for fan attention — the Icemen will likely see a spike in attendance the last two months of the season.
“It’s not an expensive night out,” said Sides. “Everybody I’ve ever met seeing their first game of hockey are not mad about the experience. They always want to come back for more.”
Icemen a dream purchase
Jacksonville has had its share of minor-league pro sports teams in basketball, soccer and hockey, but only baseball with the Double-A Suns in the Southern League, and now the Triple-A Jumbo Shrimp, have truly been long-term fixtures.
For various reasons, almost always tied to money or lacking a proper venue, too many minor-league operations have come and gone. The Icemen look to be an exception.
Plus, a $16 million renovation of the Jacksonville Ice and Sportsplex (the former Skate World) on Emerson Street will be ready to open in September, giving the Icemen a viable practice facility and more kids access to the sport.
“I think a lot of previous hockey teams got into bad leases,” Ohrablo said. “Another thing is you have to have capital reserves to start to get you through. I knew we had that.”
Kaufmann’s purchase solidified the Icemen’s financial footing at a perfect time. He had made enough money overseeing the operation of UST Brands, a top provider of high-quality survival and camping equipment, to acquire the necessary capital to start acquiring sports teams. He began by purchasing the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, a Class A Minnesota Twins affiliate, in January 2019, then wasted no time buying the Icemen six months later.
“I caught whispers the Icemen might be for sale,” said Kaufmann, a native of Long Island. “I’ve always dreamed about sports ownership.”
Now he’s got a Florida State League ballclub and two ECHL hockey teams, but there’s no doubt the Jacksonville Icemen carry a little more sentiment with Kaufmann because this is where he lives.
As history can attest, having local ownership is a vital component for minor-league sports teams to prosper long-term in any city.
Ohrablo is convinced the Icemen have evolved into a can’t-miss merger with Jacksonville. Two years after a city official told him he was crazy to bring another minor-league hockey team to town, Ohrablo said he ran into him and the guy apologized for not believing it could work.
The Icemen are not the Jaguars or Jumbo Shrimp. But they’ve made hockey a cool, reasonably-priced entertainment option, which is why hockey will be a fixture here for a lot longer than it’s ever been.
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This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Gene Frenette: Icemen a cool, entertaining product for Jacksonville hockey fans