The natural adrenalin rush and emotion surge during the Pensacola Ice Flyers first practice Saturday had a different kind of feel.
“This year, it’s getting back to normal, for the most part,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, who begins his eighth season behind the bench. This is the first time in three seasons, however, the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t hovering with practice protocols, restrictions with player and fan interaction and other issues.
“It is a better feeling coming into this season, knowing we will have a good group coming in and as time goes on with the ECHL camps trimming rosters, we’ll see what happens,” Aldoff said.
“At the end of the day, you go play hockey and it’s always exciting.”
This will be the shortest preseason. The Ice Flyers will have five practice days before opening the season at 7:05 p.m. Thursday against the Huntsville Havoc from the Pensacola Bay Center.
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“The first thing I look at is getting the lines together for the most part,” Aldoff said. “Getting those lines together so players can get used to each other as soon as possible and they get a feel for each other and get comfortable.
“We only have five days to get a team on the same page.”
The Ice Flyers had 20 players hit the ice at the Bay Center at noon Saturday for the first of two one-hour sessions. The roster is led by the return of winger Garrett Milan, a fan favorite, who two years ago helped the Ice Flyers win their fourth Southern Professional Hockey League President’s Cup title.
All of the practices through Wednesday at the Bay Center are open to the public, which is something that did not occur the previous two seasons.
Milan spent last year playing for the Halmstad Hammers in Sweden’s Hockey Ettan League. In four different stints with the Ice Flyers, he’s combined to score 49 goals and 108 assists, including 51 assists during the 2017-18 season.
He’s joined by wingers Weiland Parrish, Ivan Bondarenko, Petr Panacek, Malik Johnson, along with defensemen Seth Ensor, Preston Kugler. All three goaltenders in training camp will be newcomers.
But like past preseasons, the roster will be a fluid list. The ECHL training camps are wrapping up this weekend with roster cuts happening in the next few days.
Unlike a year ago, there will be plenty of player movement between the two leagues. Last year with collegiate players in the U.S. and Canada staying in school for an extra season, due to COVID-19 issues, and difficulty getting any players from Europe, minor league hockey at all levels had teams scrambling to fill rosters.
“With our situation, we lost all of our returners, and no players coming out of college, none from Europe,” Aldoff said. “It was unreal. I have never seen anything like it.”
Ice Flyers owner Greg Harris said his excitement level rose two weeks ago when the start of October ushered another hockey preseason into focus, along with a countdown to opening night.
“This is the fun time of year,” he said. “I love this time of year and I know our fans do, too. As soon as it’s Oct. 1, when that day hits, it doesn’t matter, it’s hockey season through all the ranks.”
The Ice Flyers staff has been able to prepare through summer for a season that will include fan interaction and events that could not happen the previous two seasons.
“It’s kind of the like the good ol’ days where, it is, ‘Hey, let’s get back to normal.’ I feel we are there,” Harris said. “We are back to normal, This has been a very pre-COVID-like off season for us and we hope it’s a very pre-COVID like season for us as well.
“It’s been nice to not think about the restrictions and all the things that we had to change, or had not thought of, in order to comply with league protocols just to play games.
“We are bringing back postgame skates with players. We are bringing back autograph sessions. Some of those things we are bringing back will give the fans the feeling that it’s like it’s a pre-COVID season again.”
The Ice Flyers opening night on Thursday will be followed by a second home game on Saturday for “Pink In The Rink” night, where the team will wear custom-made, pink jerseys to be auctioned, along with other activities to benefit Making Strides Against Breast Cancer of Pensacola.
It will be the first time in franchise history the Ice Flyers have opened at home on a Thursday night.
“We want to see how this goes,” Harris said. “It’s a good opportunity. We had to add a weekday game this year in the league, so we wanted to take a look at this and see what we could potentially do on a Thursday night. And then, an even bigger night on a Saturday for the Pink in the Rink Night.”
Bill Vilona is a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and now senior writer for Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ICE FLYERS TRAINING CAMP
(Practices are open to the public at no charge)
Sunday: First practice at 10 a.m.
Monday: First practice at 10 a.m.
Tuesday: First practice at 10 a.m.
Wednesday: Practice at 10 a.m.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Ice Flyers Season-Opening Weekend
WHEN: Thursday and Saturday, both games have 7:05 p.m. start
WHO: Huntsville Havoc vs. Ice Flyers (Thursday); Macon Mayhem vs. Ice Flyers (Saturday)
WHERE: Pensacola Bay Center
PROMOTIONS: First 1,000 fans on Thursday receive a magnetic calendar. Saturday is Pink In the Rink Night with all fans encouraged to wear pink.
TICKETS: Prices range from $15 to $28 with discounts applied for military and student tickets, provided those seats are purchased at the Bay Center box office.
RADIO: Fox Sports Pensacola (101.1 FM, 1450 AM).