Everblades Season Had Ups, Downs

By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News

ESTERO, Fla. – Some people are willing to consider this past season the most successful in the seven-year history of the Florida Everblades in the ECHL.

Though that may be up for debate depending on what factors are considered, one thing is for sure, it was the most memorable and unpredictable by far.

From what kind of impact the National Hockey League lockout was going to have, to the announcement that the team and Germain Arena were being sold, Everblades fans were kept guessing where the next storyline eventually would take them.

In the end, the ride ended in the exact same place it did the previous season — with a loss in the Kelly Cup Finals and the title of bridesmaid again, this time to the National Conference champion Trenton Titans.

“I think it was still a great season,” said Everblades forward Damian Surma while enjoying himself Saturday afternoon at a team pool party at their apartments. “The way it folded out, everybody played through injuries and call-ups. This was the best team I’ve played with by far. We’re like brothers and a lot of guys will take away friendships they won’t lose their whole lives.”

As far as overall records go, Florida’s 42-20-10 regular-season showing ranks as the third best in franchise history. The 1999-2000 team won the Brabham Cup that is awarded to the ECHL’s regular-season points champion with a record of 53-15-2, and in their inaugural season of 1998-99 the Everblades finished 45-20-5.

Even though that 1999-2000 group was bounced in the first round in five games by the Augusta Lynx, their 55 total wins still are the most combined. In 1998-99, Florida swept Birmingham, Ala., in the first round of the playoffs in three games and then was swept by Mississippi, also in three games, to finish with 48 total wins.

This year’s Everblades played into June for the first time in league history, and with 19 playoff games on top of the 72 in the regular season, finished 54-27-10 overall. They were 10-3 heading into the Kelly Cup Finals and had rolled past South Carolina, Greenville and Charlotte in the first three rounds.

For head coach Gerry Fleming, it was his most successful season behind the bench in his five years as a head coach — four of those with Florida.

“I’d be lying to say that I didn’t want to win a Kelly Cup to put on the resumé,” Fleming said. “Because as a coach you’re judged on your wins, your losses and your winning percentage. But ultimately I wanted it because these guys have worked so hard all year, and (associate coach) Jason (Nobili) and I both have asked them to step outside themselves. It would have been a great reward.”

When the final roster was set back in October, one glaring omission in the eyes of Everblades fans was veteran forward Tom Buckley, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer.

But veteran forward Brad Church quickly endeared himself to Southwest Florida, and after the Eastern Conference championship banner from 2004 was raised to the rafters on opening night, Fleming, team president/general manager Craig Brush and the rest of the team were ready to look ahead.

Church scored what proved to be the game-winning goal in Florida’s 6-2 season-opening win at home over the Texas Wildcatters and finished the regular season as the team’s third-leading scorer with 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) in 62 games.

He missed 10 games due to injury, but after being on the losing end to the Everblades in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals as the captain of the Reading Royals, he wanted to win it all this time.

“That’s why I play, I want to win a championship and I’m hungry to win one,” said Church, who along with rookie forwards David Lundbohm and Steve Saviano were at Sunday’s Fort Myers Miracle game to throw out the first pitch. “As exciting as it was it was disheartening to come up short. The season as a whole was a great year for me.”

Things started out a little shaky the first month of the season as the mix of veterans and rookies tried to figure each other out and get into a rhythm. From the opener on Oct. 22 through the second of back-to-back home losses to Greenville on Nov. 26, the Everblades went 6-9-0, including 2-5-0 on their longest road trip of the season between Oct. 30 and Nov. 13.

But after Thanksgiving, Florida went 13-5-2 in its next 20 games, and really got hot from the beginning of February until the end of the season on April 9. Starting with the first day of February, the Everblades reeled off 20 wins in 31 games with four regulation ties.

Unfortunately, the Everblades’ strong finish at home in the regular season (13-2-5 in 20 home dates from Dec. 22 through April 9) did not carry over into the postseason. In 10 home playoff dates they went 5-5, including 0-3 in the Kelly Cup Finals. They are 0-5 all-time at home in the Kelly Cup Finals, losing both home games in 2004 to Idaho.

Offensively, Florida was one of the most dangerous and deepest teams in the league. Rookie forwards Matt Hendricks, Lund bohm and Saviano served notice that they are going to be players to watch for quite some time, with Hendricks chosen as a starter for the American Conference in the 2005 ECHL All-Star Game.

Hendricks finished fifth on the team in scoring with 50 points (24 goals, 26 assists) in 54 games, behind Saviano’s 52 points (14 goals, 38 assists) in 58 games.

Lundbohm finished tied with Trenton’s Scott Bertoli as the postseason scoring leader with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists).

But special teams and defense caught up with the Everblades in the end, more so the lapses in their own end that led to odd-man rushes and left goaltenders Tyler MacKay and rookie Craig Kowalski on an island.

Trenton averaged 4.17 goals per game in the Finals to Florida’s 2.50. MacKay, who was acquired from Atlantic City on Feb. 4 in a trade, went 18-3-2 with a 1.92 goals-against-average for Florida in the regular season.

“The trades for Tyler and (Paul) Cabana proved to be good ones for us,” Fleming said Saturday morning. “They both made an impact, as did nearly all the rookies, including Chris Lee, who played forward and defense for us. But it still hurts to fall short of our goal.”

The biggest news regarding the team surfaced in late January, when it was confirmed that Peter Karmanos Jr., senior partner in KTB Sports Inc., was putting the Everblades and Germain Arena up for sale. Since then it has come to light that James and Robert Brooks, co-owners of the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, appear to be the prospective buyers.

Jim Rutherford, Carolina Hurricanes team president and spokesman for KTB Sports, said all along that nothing would be finalized until the end of the season. So the team fought through that distraction and extended the season right up to within a few days of the league’s marketing and communication meetings in Las Vegas, which run through Monday.

Fleming was signed to a two-year contract after last season, so he still has one year remaining and is planning on being back for 2005-06. The status of Florida’s affiliation with Carolina and Lowell of the American Hockey League will determine how the roster shapes up next season, but Surma, Church, MacKay and fan favorite Reggie Berg have made it clear they’d like to return.

“I don’t know yet and I won’t know until the middle of the summer,” said Surma, who has a goal and an assist in two NHL games with Carolina and was Florida’s leading scorer in the regular season with 60 points (32 goals, 28 assists). “If I couldn’t get an AHL deal I’d love to come back here. Whenever you get along with all the guys like I did this year, it matters what you did on the ice, but the way we were with each other off the ice was truly special.”

And that’s what will stand out about the 2004-05 Florida Everblades — they were family.