As the Lightning try to build off of their 4-2 win over Carolina to head into the playoffs on a high note, another team in the organization made the playoffs yesterday: the ECHL affiliate Florida Everblades.
For the 13th straight season, the Everblades have made the post-season, which is every year of their existence. Save for two Finals appearances and a Cup, they may be the most successful hockey team in the state. While they have yet to win a Kelly Cup, the Everblades have two conference championships, three division titles, and two regular season titles under their belt.
The Everblades are based in Estero, FL, on the southwest coast of the peninsula. It is a place probably better known for baseball spring training than hockey, and there is no natural ice. This would lead one to believe the team isn’t supported, that a hockey community hasn’t bee built there. A small Florida town of less than 10,000 people can’t possibly support a minor-league hockey franchise, right?
Wrong. Despite location and tradition, the Everblades are fourth in the ECHL in average attendance with 5,141 fans in the seats per game. They beat out larger markets like Las Vegas, as well as more traditional hockey areas like Kalamazoo, MI and Victoria, B.C. Performance doesn’t seem to be the answer, as both Victoria and Kalamazoo have clinched playoff spots. Kalamazoo has even clinched their division.
With the possible sale of the Phoenix Coyotes and the Atlanta Thrashers dominating hockey news lately, there has been a lot of talk of location being the problem. Florida proves all of that wrong. A good way to tell if a sport is rooted in an area is how it’s minor league teams are supported, and if people in Florida didn’t like hockey, why would a town of under 10,000 be filling over 5,000 seats per night?
The key isn’t location, the key is success. When teams are successful, they will gain a following. People try to use the counter this argument with the Coyotes situation, but if anything that affirms it. The Coyotes just became successful last season, not giving the fan base a chance to get into them. There have been several teams who have been able to turn around their popularity by improving play (Pittsburgh and Washington ringing any bells?).
The success both on the ice and in the community of the Everblades gives a lot of hope for other teams in southern markets. Gwinnett (in Georgia) is sixth in attendance, also beating both Kalamazoo and Victoria. You don’t even need to stay in the ECHL to see examples of this. The Hurricanes have taken a stranglehold on Carolina, having one of the most passionate fanbases in the league (on full display during All-Star weekend).
Congratulations to the Everblades, the future Bolts, and the entire franchise for being a model of southern minor-league markets. Maybe we don’t have to look far to learn how to make franchises like the Coyotes and Thrashers better.