By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – This was foreign territory for Brandon Coalter, walking up to the will call window in front of Germain Arena and picking up tickets to a Florida Everblades game.
He wasn’t sure how to act the night of Oct. 21 when he made his way through the front doors of the arena as a regular spectator for the very first time.
Fans who recognized the 28-year-old retired forward on the concourse mobbed him immediately, reminding Coalter that it used to be his house. For three seasons (2003-06), Coalter was the lifeblood of the Everblades, the first one to drop the gloves in defense of a teammate, the first one off the bench to celebrate a game-winning goal. That’s not an easy culture to leave behind for any athlete.
“It was a lot different feeling going up to the ticket booth and asking if they’ve got a couple of tickets there for Brandon Coalter,” he said after Florida’s 5-2 win over Texas that night as he waited to thank veteran forward Ernie Hartlieb for leaving him the tickets.
“When you’re on the team and you’re hurt or just didn’t make the lineup and find yourself in the stands, you’re there watching the game to see what you can do the next game when you get out there â€” what to do, what not to do. You still have that feeling of, ‘I’m going to wake up tomorrow and skate with the boys at practice.’ This was entirely different.”
Back in May, following Florida’s Game 5 loss to the Gwinnett Gladiators in the South Division Finals of the ECHL’s American Conference, Coalter fought back tears in front of his locker as he told reporters that was his last hockey game.
The Everblades retained his rights in case he changed his mind. The Newmarket, Ontario, native wrestled with the idea over the summer as he continued his pursuit of a career in firefighting, but getting engaged and factoring in his health led Coalter to stick with his decision.
Another former Everblade, Tom Buckley, can relate to what Coalter is going through. Buckley is Florida’s all-time leader in games played (288), points (310), assists (207), penalty minutes (422) and shots (997). In February of 2004, he came out of retirement for the last 20 games of the regular season and helped lead the Everblades to their first Kelly Cup Finals, then after not being asked back for the 2004-05 season, the 30-year-old retired again and began his career in real estate.
“It was difficult to go back, it was very difficult, which is why it took me so long to go watch a game for the first time because it wasn’t like I was 45 years old and couldn’t play the game anymore,” Buckley said. “I retired for all the reasons that I wanted to retire the first time, but when I came back it was obvious I could still play, so it’s not easy to watch a game as a fan. It never leaves your system and it’s hard to cope with.”
Buckley has yet to take in an Everblades game this season and isn’t too sure how many games he will attend. He still has a bitter taste in his mouth over how his relationship with the organization ended, but he has friends on the team in veteran forwards Reggie Berg and Brent McDonald, and as a fan of the game, he still enjoys watching the action and dissecting the plays like he used to when he was in uniform.
Two of Coalter’s fellow firefighters, Terry Lindgren and Matt Pagnutti, also played for the Everblades and can be spotted around Germain Arena on game nights. Both were captains, as was Buckley, and Lindgren stood behind the bench with head coach Gerry Fleming as his assistant coach for two seasons (2002-04).
Jim Brown, who played part of the 2003-04 season, is going through EMT training with Coalter and comes to some games, so Coalter likes what the future holds.
“We actually just bought a house just on the border of Lee and Charlotte counties and it looks like I’m going to be a Floridian,” said Coalter, who was to finalize his immigration status last week. “I graduate EMT on Dec. 12 and from there I’m hoping to work anywhere from the Estero boundaries up to Lee and I’ll be hired within the next two months.”
In the meantime, Coalter has embraced the player now wearing his famous No. 17, towering forward Bill Kinkel. The two have gone fishing together, and through three games, the 6-foot-5, 239-pound Kinkel has won every fight he has been in, showing the same energy that made Coalter a fan favorite.
“There’s no better guy to be wearing No. 17. He keeps that number up good,” Coalter said. “I just know he’s going to bring a lot of life into that number.”