BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - If you know anything about Mississippi Sea Wolves hockey, the team's decision to suspend operations for next season isn't a surprise. Attendance at hockey games is way off. And travel costs are through the roof.
If you went to a game this season and listened carefully, you could hear the whispers between shots on goal. People who showed up to all 36 home games knew that despite management's best efforts, Mississippi's days in the ECHL were on thin ice.
The old East Coast Hockey League is not what is was in 1996 when Mississippi skated into the league. In those days, the Sea Wolves and their fans had real rivalries. The I-10 corridor linked hockey fans from Tallahassee to Lafayette.
The Wolves Den always had opposing fans in town. And our supporters flocked east or west to catch Mississippi road games.
I can still see Roger Maxwell duking it out with a Louisiana Ice Gators brawler. I vividly remember Mike Martone leaving the penalty box to start a melee in Mobile.
Pensacola played in the hangar. New Orleans started in the old Municipal Auditorium. The proximity of those cities created natural rivalries. Those rivalries created a passion for hockey in an area of the south that knew nothing about the sport. And that passion created a strong fan base for the Sea Wolves.
That was evident on Thanksgiving night 1996. The Sea Wolves had to delay the opening faceoff nearly 30 minutes, because ticket windows were overwhelmed by curious fans who wanted to end their holiday with their new hockey team.
What made the original Sea Wolves so special was the way they gave back to the community. To spread the word about Mississippi hockey, players saturated schools, reading books, signing autographs, and handing out tickets to young south Mississippi children.
Ice hockey leagues quickly formed. Roller hockey leagues got a lot more participation.
Mississippi's off ice accomplishments made life just a bit better for the region.
Former winger Jon Kosobud started Kozzie's Christmas. Kosobud delivered donated presents to children who were stuck at Memorial Hospital over the holidays (John Evangelista carried on this tradition when Kozzie left the team).
The team partnered with WLOX to sponsor blood drives. It collected hats to help Caps for Kids, so cancer patients had something to wear on their noggins. It rounded up stuffed animals for the areas law enforcement community, so an officer could give a teddy bear to a child caught up in a crisis situation.
And it sold the uniforms off players' backs to benefit the coffers of non-profit groups across south Mississippi.
On May 29, 1999, a sellout crowd packed into the Mississippi Coast Coliseum for one of the most electrifying nights in recent memory. The Sea Wolves were in game seven of the Kelly Cup finals. Four hours, and two overtimes after the opening faceoff, Kevin Hilton got credited with a goal that still sends chills down my spine.
The Mississippi Sea Wolves were Kelly Cup champions.
Ten years later, I was at the next to last Sea Wolves home game. Mississippi got an overtime goal to beat Florida, and keep its slim playoff hopes alive. The coach pumped his fist, and the team jumped over the boards to celebrate a crucial victory.
Before heading to the locker room, all 20 players gathered at center ice. They tapped their sticks on the rink, and saluted the fans. For me, that moment symbolized the organization waving good-bye its ardent supporters. And I was okay with that.
Sure, I'll miss Sea Wolves hockey. Fortunately, I've got some wonderful memories, from a hockey team in Mississippi, that I'll carry with me forever.