By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Hockey is not taking a backseat to hurricanes today, but the memories of last year’s odd-man rush on a virtually defenseless Gulf Coast are still fresh in the minds of the ECHL and those teams impacted.
At this time 12 months ago, Germain Arena was about to undergo a transformation into a hurricane shelter, with all of Southwest Florida bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Wilma. It was to be the third time in less than two months the league would have to readjust the schedule, pushing back the Florida Everblades’ opener against Las Vegas a full week.
But at least Florida still had a season to look forward to.
For the Texas Wildcatters and Mississippi Sea Wolves, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, respectively, washed away any hopes of putting a team on the ice. And in Mississippi’s case, it will be at least another year before hockey can be played in Biloxi.
Tonight, however, the Wildcatters will line up across from the Everblades and officially give the residents of Beaumont, Texas, something to cheer about again. That is something ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna is proud of.
“I think (Texas owner) Rick Adams has spent a lot of time in Beaumont, he has a good lease arrangement and has been able to bring on board some new corporate sponsors,” McKenna said. “Their ticket sales to date are probably a little bit ahead of where they were before the hurricanes. All of those things are positive and our hope is that they’re not only back, but back in a positive fashion.”
Three frightening storms all one month apart from each other will change anyone’s perspective, not only on hockey but on life. Katrina overwhelmed Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, Rita did the same to Texas on Sept. 24 and Wilma – the last named storm of the hurricane season – sent people running for cover in South Florida on Oct. 24.
Leon Hayward, who signed with the Wildcatters as a forward over the summer, saw some of the damage caused by Rita up close for the first time about a month ago. It brought him back in time to the beginning of last season as he remembered how concerned he was for the Wildcatters and Sea Wolves players who had to find new teams. More importantly, he got a sense of how the community banded together and was continuing to do so.
“It’s a very, very scary thing and you hope no one you know directly is affected by it, but obviously the hockey community extends all the way to Southeast Texas,” said Hayward, who played for Columbia and Reading last year. “We just want to go as a team, play hard for our fans and give them something to cheer for, because they haven’t had much to cheer for over the last year.”
Hayward’s head coach, Malcolm Cameron (pictured), was hired in Texas on June 8 after guiding the Long Beach Ice Dogs the past two seasons.
Cameron moved his wife, Heather, and son, Brett, to Beaumont with him and sees a growing economy along with a vibrant community moving ahead and not feeling sorry for themselves. Through hockey, and through getting himself and his players out in the community, Cameron believes the Wildcatters can fill in some of the cracks.
“It’s pretty near back to normal, but I think it’s just the fragility of the community and the psyche of it still,” he said. “We bought a house here, it’s the first time I’ve actually owned a house where I coached, and in our neighborhood a lot of the people were affected by Rita. …we’re just really excited to be here.”
Apparently, the residents of Beaumont are equally excited to have not only the Camerons but all of the Wildcatters as part of their town and intend to prove that at Texas’ home opener Oct. 28 against Pensacola.
They, like the rest of the ECHL cities, are ready to put hockey in the forefront again.