By Len Bardsley
© 2005 The Times of Trenton
At first glance you would think the Florida Everblades are in a barren hockey landscape.
The Everblades, located at least 600 miles from their nearest opponent in the ECHL, call home the Gulf Coast of Florida, northwest of Alligator Alley.
More than one person felt Craig Brush was involved in a losing proposition when he started a team in Estero, Fla., in 1998.
Brush does not know much about losing, however, so it should be no surprise the level of success the Everblades have attained, on and off the ice.
The Everblades have reached the Kelly Cup Finals for the second straight season and await the winner of the American Conference Finals between Trenton and Alaska, who will play Game 7 on Monday at Anchorage.
The president and general manager of the Florida Everblades, Brush has been winning for the last 35 years.
Brush was a forward for the 1970 Cornell team that went undefeated and claimed the NCAA championship.
“That was a pleasant memory for us,” said Brush. “There were a lot of people on that team with a strong desire to succeed. That is part of my nature too. Most people in sports are that way.”
Brush has put his experience as a player, a coach and a hockey parent to good use with the Everblades.
Brush started a youth program at Germain Arena the first season the Everblades started, cultivating not only the sport, but also future Everblades fans.
“We have three rinks all together (at Germain Arena),” said Brush. “We established the youth programs in the first year. They have been growing steadily. Each year it becomes more popular. It dovetails nicely having a professional team here. We are building our own fan base.”
Raising his family in Birmingham, Mich., Brush took his sons to University of Michigan games. He coached all three sons, Matt, Tyler and Patrick with the Compuware Youth Program.
Later, Brush enjoyed the opportunity to have his son Matt (who graduated from Princeton in 1998) to play for the Everblades in their first season.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Brush. “You could look at it in a couple of different ways – as a father and as someone involved in the team. He had a pretty good year here and was able to play in Europe the following season before entering the real world.”
The Brush emphasis on family has established the Everblades as a model franchise for the ECHL.
The Everblades have led the league in attendance five straight seasons and have made the playoffs in every year of their seven-year existence.
“It is a combination of things,” said Brush of the Everblades phenomenal success. “We benefit from a very good market place and we are the premiere team here. There are not college teams and other than spring training we are the main sporting option. We got a foothold with the fans.”
Brush has seen plenty of ECHL franchises in his area fail (Jacksonville, Miami, New Orleans, Mobile, Tallahassee, Baton Rouge, Birmingham and Louisiana) were all in the league when the Everblades started in the 1998-99 season.
He knows his team can take nothing for granted.
“You can never rest on your laurels,” said Brush. “You have to keep working at it. Listen to your fan base and respond to their suggestions.”
Brush feels Louisiana is a perfect example of a franchise where huge crowds may have been taken for granted. The Ice Gators led the league in attendance for their first four years of existence, only to begin a steady drop in their sixth season. Louisiana suspended operations this season after drawing 2,161, a remarkable drop from 9,857, in 1998-99 when they last led the league in attendance.
“That is a Harvard Business School case study,” said Brush of Louisiana. “They had everything going for them. You have to separate the people there for the honeymoon and the people there for the long term. We appealed to the family from the get go. We put an end to being a place where you come to drink. We appealed to the families. That was a good decision.”