By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – A die-hard Tampa Bay Lightning fan living in Cape Coral, Eric Christensen had been thinking about attending his first Florida Everblades’ game for some time.
The Cape Coral police officer picked the perfect game and perfect time to walk through the turnstiles.
Christensen became the Blades’ 2 millionth fan in the team’s nine-year history when he walked through Germain Arena’s east entrance at 7:34 p.m. Saturday.
After he handed his ticket to the ticket-taker, two red sirens blared above him and rainbow confetti fell from the rafters. A second later, Florida general manager Craig Brush told a startled Christensen that he was a big winner.
Christensen won an autographed Blades’ jersey and stick, and 10 tickets to a suite for a Pittsburgh Penguins-Florida Panthers game Feb. 22. Christensen and nine of his friends will ride to the NHL game in a limousine.
“I had no clue about this. Not one,” said Christensen, who moved to Cape Coral three years ago. “I walked in the door and the alarms go off, and, boom, stuff was flying around and people were looking at me. Other than finding my wife, I would say this is probably the biggest thing that’s happened to me.”
Christensen came to the game with his sons Austin, 14, and Alex, 12, and nephew Jonathon, 13.
It was also the first Everblades’ game for the kids.
“I’m still shaking. I can’t believe this,” Austin said.
Christensen came to the game because his wife Claudia got three complimentary tickets from her employer, Fifth Third Bank. He gave the free tickets to the kids and purchased his own.
Claudia stayed home to take care of the couple’s 5-month-old baby AnnaLucia.
“It’s going to be a big surprise to her,” Christensen said with a smile. “I guess I need to call her on the cell phone and tell her to watch the news.”
The Blades, who have led the league in attendance in five of the past six seasons, are the third-fastest team in ECHL history to reach the 2 million fan mark, according to league spokesman Jack Carnefix. South Carolina (eighth season) and Louisiana (seventh) are the only clubs to do it faster in the league’s 19-year history.
Florida, which is averaging 6,093 fans per game this season, is sixth in total attendance in ECHL history, trailing South Carolina, Charlotte, Hampton Roads, Louisiana and Dayton. The Hampton Roads and Louisiana teams are defunct.
“I think more than anything else it’s the consistency of people coming to our games. We really haven’t had a serious drop-off in attendance,” said Brush, who made an on-ice presentation to Christensen. “Thanks go to all the fans and also to all the employees of Germain Arena for what they’ve done to keep people coming here.”
Christensen was stunned to hear that a minor-league hockey team had reached 2 million fans in nine years. He said he saw three teams come and go when he was living in Lakeland.
He added that he will definitely be attending more Blades’ games.
“Yeah, especially after all these prizes,” Austin said.