JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The seats at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena are still empty but soon hockey fans in Jacksonville will be welcomed back as the Icemen drop puck to start their 2020 season.
It’s not that far off at all now.
“I hope you keep the camera off me opening night because I might be crying. I’m pretty excited,” Andy Kaufmann, the owner of the Icemen, said on Thursday.
The Icemen’s season came to an abrupt end back in March when the ECHL suspended play and canceled the rest of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Icemen, who ranked third in attendance last season in the ECHL, will be back out on the ice on Dec. 11 for their first match.
And they’ll be in Jacksonville a long time after that, too.
The team, along with Mayor Lenny Curry, announced a lease extension for the team at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena that will keep the Icemen in that venue through the 2030-31 season. The deal is pending approval by the City Council. The Icemen drew an average of 5,904 fans in 2019-20, according to Hockeydb.com, ranked only behind Fort Wayne and Toledo in bringing fans to games. The Icemen’s Jan. 19, 2019 game against the Florida Everblades drew an area-record 11,288 fans.
“The Icemen have added significantly to Jacksonville’s reputation as a sports destination in the last three years, and I’m excited to say that they will continue to do so for years to come,” Curry said. “This team brings thousands of people to our urban core every game, boosting our economy, enhancing our quality of life, and adding to our reputation as a destination for sports and entertainment. I look forward to working with my colleagues on City Council to keep the ‘cold front’ in Jacksonville through 2031.”
It is a positive step in keeping the Icemen locked in Jacksonville and somewhat of a segue into the ECHL season. The Icemen announced the first slice of their 2020-21 schedule last week, a sign that things are moving back to normalcy after a season that was derailed by COVID-19.
They open on the road Dec. 11 at the Florida Everblades and have their home opener the following night against Greenville. The full ECHL schedule will be unveiled in December. The regular season runs through June 6.
Things will be very different this year for fans and players. The Icemen’s No. 1 priority this year is going to be safety for everyone involved including fans.
“I have got 36 pages of safety protocols sitting on my desk and that is just for the players,” said Icemen team president Bob Ohrablo.
During previous games, the team only opened the lower bowl of VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, but this year they are planning on opening up all the seats. Capacity will be restricted to provide social distancing for fans.
“We are lucky enough to be managed here by ASM at the building they are an international company and dealing with this all over the world so those same safety protocols they use in New York on Philadelphia will be used here,” Ohrablo said.
Even though games this year will be a little bit of a different atmosphere for fans — like being asked to wear a mask while they are in their seats — the Icemen still hope fans will be able to come and enjoy the experience as before.