By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Bob Ferguson helped make the Florida Everblades what they are today: one of the ECHL’s most successful and respected franchises.
Ferguson coached the Blades’ inaugural 1998-99 team. He won ECHL Coach of the Year with Florida in 1999-2000, when the Blades won a then ECHL-record 53 games, and 2000-01 before resigning in 2001.
Ferguson, 49, will return to Germain Arena this weekend for the first time since he resigned. The first-year Augusta Lynx coach will face the Blades at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Germain Arena.
“I can’t help but say there’s definitely going to be some feelings. I was part of the franchise’s planning stages,” Ferguson said. “I look back fondly to my time there. It’s definitely going to be melancholy. But that’s the rearview mirror. I’ve got to look at the front windshield. I like where Augusta’s heading.”
Only one Blades player remains from the Ferguson era. Forward Reggie Berg played for Ferguson with Florida in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 and with the United States Hockey League’s Des Moines Buccaneers in 1993-94.
“I think the fans will receive him well,” said Berg, who won’t play this weekend and will miss three months with a right wrist injury.
“He was well liked and well respected around here. He did a great job. I don’t know why they’d treat him any differently? Other than the fact he’s on the other side now.”
Ferguson said he is looking forward to seeing Berg, Blades general manager Craig Brush and athletic trainer Todd Wisocki. Brush and Wisocki have been with the club throughout its eight-year history.
“I imagine we’ll run into each other,” Ferguson said, laughing. “I’m happy for them. They’re enjoying great success. The Everblades have become a model franchise not only for minor league hockey but for all minor league sports.”
Berg said he hasn’t talked to Ferguson since he resigned.
“It’s been too long,” Berg said. “He’s one of the greatest hockey minds that I’ve ever come across.”
Ferguson cited a slew of reasons for his 2001 departure. The ECHL road schedule was too rigorous. There were family issues (Ferguson’s son, Brett, started high school in 2001 and Ferguson’s wife wanted to return to the Midwest). And then there was the playoff disappointment (despite tremendous regular seasons the Blades never advanced past the Southern Conference semifinals during Ferguson’s tenure).
“To be honest, the fun wasn’t there anymore,” said Ferguson, who was 136-61-15 with the Blades. “It was more of a family decision. It was difficult but it was something that needed to be done.”
After resigning in Florida, Ferguson moved back to the Midwest and ended up coaching the junior league Des Moines Buccaneers again. Ferguson coached the club from 1990-95 and from 2001-04.
Ferguson is the winningest coach in United States Hockey League history. His career record in junior hockey is 517-302-54.
Brett was part of three Iowa high school hockey championship and two baseball state championship teams. A starting pitcher, Brett didn’t lose a game during his prep career.
After Brett graduated high school in 2005, Ferguson started to get “the itch” to be a pro coach again. Ferguson remembered the Augusta team that stunned his record-setting Everblades team in the 2000 Southern Conference quarterfinals.
“I had a lot of respect for Augusta,” Ferguson said. “They have the potential to be a very outstanding franchise. Our arena is a tough place to play. And I looked at the fact that Augusta hasn’t made the playoffs in four years and said the only way to go is up.”
Ferguson is building the Lynx (3-1-1) just like he did Florida. He signed a slew of young players. He has only two veterans.
The youth movement worked when Ferguson was in Estero. The 1999-2000 Blades’ 108 points, .771 winning percentage and 53 wins rank second all-time in ECHL history.
Ferguson said he’s proud that Florida “never looked back” after he resigned. The Blades have reached the Kelly Cup Finals the last two seasons.
“In a time where minor league sports go in cycles,” Ferguson said, “Florida keeps getting better.”
The only two coaches in Blades history will face off this weekend. Coach Gerry Fleming, who has been Florida’s coach since 2001, deflected a question about facing his predecessor.
“I’m not thinking about who the coach is on the other side. I’m thinking about their team,” Fleming said. “They’ve got a good team. Bob’s got them playing well. A coach is not going to win or lose a hockey game. It’s the players.”
Brush didn’t speak at length on the matter either. Brush and Ferguson have been friends for years. Ferguson coached Brush’s son, Matt, in juniors.
Will it be neat to see Ferguson again?
“It will be neater if we get two victories,” Brush said.