By Bill Vilona
Pensacola News Journal
PENSACOLA, Fla. – When John Marks was the rival hockey coach, eager to outwit the Pensacola Ice Pilots, he maintained a visitor’s envy.
His teams in the ECHL always stayed at Pensacola Beach. Of course, they were never here long enough to enjoy it.
“The schedule was get off the bus, play the game, get on the bus and leave,” said Marks. “But I used to walk outside the hotel, take it all in, and say, ‘Why am I not here?’ I loved it.”
Now, he can live it.
Marks, 59, a native of Manitoba, Canada, is planning on enjoying the best of both aspects, sinking his toes in the surf, and delivering a championship-level team as the Ice Pilots’ new head coach. He officially was introduced Thursday at a media and fan event, attracting an overflow crowd at Lakeside Galley and Tavern, located off West Highway 98.
“Even though we used to come in here with some other teams and kick your (team’s) butt, I do have some friends in Pensacola,” said Marks, beginning his address to fans. “The first thing one of those friends said to me when I got here: ‘Welcome to paradise.’
“This truly is a fantastic place.”
Marks’ ebullience reflected the mood surrounding the Ice Pilots. Two months removed from possibly suspending operations, and leaving town, this team is completing a whirlwind of changes to ensure a future.
The Ice Pilots lured Marks, who won a pair of championships with different ECHL teams (Greenville, S.C. and Charlotte). He has coached more ECHL games (918) than any other coach in league history.
Marks, in turn, hired well-regarded assistant coach Phil Russell, a former teammate when both were defensemen with the Chicago Blackhawks.
“To me, it does show ownership is serious about putting a winning team together. I think we’re all ecstatic,” said Jodi Mays.
Mays, a season-ticket holder for the past three years, was part of the large contingent of Ice Pilots fans traveling to Lakeside Galley for Thursday’s reception.
She was impressed with Marks’ dynamic speaking skills. He had a way of explaining philosophy with easily understood analogy.
Marks wants the Ice Pilots foremost to become a team of faster skaters and stronger stick-handlers than recent past.
“The Belmont (Stakes) horse race is Saturday,” Marks said. “I’ve yet to see a Budweiser Clydesdale win the Belmont, or the Preakness, or the Kentucky Derby. So you’re not going to win a horse race with a bunch of Clydesdales.
“Now, you might have a lot of beer. And that’s fine. But I’m going to put a team on the ice that’s going to be able to skate (quicker), a team that’s going to have skill, and players who play as a team.”
Marks is using his vast connections, forged through 25 years in coaching, plus 10 seasons as an NHL player, to reload the Ice Pilots. The team can start announcing acquisitions June 16. Contracts become official July 2.
“We feel like we’re making the proper changes to carry this team forward,” said Ice Pilots president Greg Schuh, a shareholder in the team. “One of our goals is obviously to put a very good product on the ice.
“It’s been our goal since we got to Pensacola three years ago. Now that we’ve had time to settle in, we have opportunity to really turn the corner.”
Mario Forgione, the Ice Pilots majority owner, was unable to attend Thursday’s event. Forgione was in Anaheim, Calif., visiting with friend Chris Pronger, a defenseman for the newly-crowned Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks. Forgione also has other friends in the Ducks’ organization. He was visible Wednesday near the team’s on-ice celebration.
Dave Farrish, former Ice Pilots head coach, is a Ducks’ assistant coach.
“Hats off to everyone in their organization,” said Marks, who played in 57 Stanley Cup playoff games, but didn’t win the ultimate prize.
“Mario couldn’t pass that opportunity,” Schuh said.
Marks has been signed to a two-year contract, underscoring the team’s plan to remain in Pensacola. Negotiations continue for a long-term lease agreement with Escambia County and the Pensacola Civic Center.
The Ice Pilots will begin their 12th season in Pensacola as one of the longest-tenured teams in the same city among the ECHL lineup.
Forgione previously has said there would be a flexible timetable in trying to get the deal finalized this summer. Meanwhile, Schuh said immediate focus is on selling season-tickets and sponsorships.
The team is nearly halfway to its goal of selling 1,500-season tickets. The team’s final home game attracted more than 6,000, pushing the Ice Pilots toward the middle of league attendance, despite the team having the worst won-lost record.
“I thought last year they made progress in trying to get the people back,” said Chris Vinson, a season-ticket holder for eight years, who attended Thursday’s event. “A winning product would sure help. They seem to be working toward that end.”