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Today is May 23, 2022

Pro hockey is back in Biloxi

By Matt Caputo

Pro hockey is back in Biloxi

When veteran minor-league hockey player, Joe Pace Jr., told Barry Soskin, the owner of the team he played for in Port Huron, Michigan, that he was thinking of moving South and easing out of the pro game, his boss asked him if he and his wife had ever considered relocating to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  

Soskin explained to Pace that he was eyeing Biloxi as an expansion location for the Federal Prospects Hockey League, an independent entry-level circuit where he already owned two clubs and where Pace had roamed as a player/coach for a decade. 

“We didn’t know Biloxi was on the coast or anything. I never played here against the Sea Wolves or the Surge,” Pace says. “We Googled it, looked up the community, researched the school districts, and when we saw where it was on the map, that interested us.”  

With Pace and his family relocated to the “Playground of the South,” Soskin had a professional hockey “lifer” on the ground. While the last pro hockey team to play at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, the Mississippi Surge, went out of business in May 2014, true fans always held out hope for a return of their beloved Mississippi Sea Wolves, part of the NHL-affiliated ECHL, tenants of the coliseum for 10 seasons between 1996-2009 and champions in 1999.

The Sea Wolves are back in Biloxi with the 2022-23 season starting in October. Pace is the team’s chief operating officer and season tickets went on sale in March.

“Barry wanted a lease right away to (start playing last) October, the coliseum wanted us to test the market,” says Pace, who has played in over 450 Federal League games. “We signed a lease for the exhibition games, we moved down, and the first thing I did was get in touch with the people running the Bring Back Our Sea Wolves Facebook page.” 

In 2022, it’s no wonder that social media played a role in bringing the Sea Wolves back to life after 13 years. In minor league sports, it’s often the passion of the fans that endures longer than the clubs themselves. It’s not unusual for fans of defunct teams to maintain Facebook pages where they can trade stories, photos, and memories of the good old days. 

Josh Law, a Long Beach resident, grew up cheering for the Biloxi teams and now works for the new team part time in marketing. 

“It’s something you’d never expect to be such a huge part of my life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Law says. “It’s become my favorite sport. I was three years old the night we won the Kelly Cup (ECHL championship), I was at the game with my mom and dad. I was a superfan.”  

Damages caused to the coliseum by Hurricane Katrina forced the team to suspend operations for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The Sea Wolves returned to action in the 2007-08 season, but the hiatus hampered their attendance numbers, and the team folded in 2009. The Surge took the Sea Wolves’ place at the coliseum, but the rebrand in the lower-level Southern Professional Hockey League didn’t resonate and that team halted operations in 2014. 

Knowing that many locals wanted the Sea Wolves back and having a direct line of communication to them made filling the coliseum for a series featuring existing FPHL teams much easier. 

“The tribute page for the original ECHL team had 4,000 followers, so the stars aligned,” Pace says. “We researched the copyrights and trademark, and the Sea Wolves name was available, so we secured the name early and went from there.”

What is now the official Facebook page of the Mississippi Sea Wolves evolved out of a fan page that was created by Alexander Davis, a Vancleave native, and fan since 2001, to support a blog he produced about the Surge. Originally called “Surge Nation,” Davis rarely posted on it between 2012 and 2014 but started using it to rally remaining Sea Wolves fans and connect with new ones. In June 2021, Davis’ page had about 3,900 followers and over 4,200 at the time of the new owners’ first press conference in July 2021. Today, the Sea Wolves page has well over 12,000 followers. 

“Before social media, fans created their own websites. The Sea Wolves had two or three unofficial websites with game photography and message boards,” Davis says. “The power of having a place to connect with fans and keep the Sea Wolves memories alive certainly helped bring hockey back.”

Pace had previously helped Soskin host FPHL neutral site games to test the viability of other markets, but never while living on-site in the perspective city and never with the robust social media presence that was preexisting in Biloxi. Soskin and Pace borrowed staff from the visiting FPHL teams, from teams in other leagues and relied on fan volunteers to staff the three events in 2021. 

Despite being held on two Thursdays and one Friday in December – and not on any Saturdays – the neutral site games left little doubt that hockey would be welcomed back in Biloxi. Each game drew larger crowds than the previous one. About 4,300 tickets were sold for the Dec. 2 game, 7,200 for Dec. 17, and 8,646 on Dec. 30, good for a sellout. 

“All the modern technology brings new fans,” says John “Stumpy” Evangelista, a Hurley resident who played parts of six seasons with the original club between 1999-2005. “I couldn’t be more excited to have hockey back, I’ve only been watching on TV for years.”

Soskin’s teams, the Carolina Thunderbirds of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and the Port Huron Prowlers played as the home team against the Columbus River Dragons in Georgia. Soskin’s clubs quickly earned the hearts of the locals. “Thousands of fans really stuck to cheering for the home team,” Davis says. “By the third game, the number of Sea Wolves chants almost became annoying.”

While the FPHL is a lower level than past Biloxi teams, the 2021 games were a great showcase for the new Sea Wolves. Pace, still not retired, managed to get into an old-fashioned hockey fight in front of hisnew hometown fans that has garnered over 5 million views on Facebook. “You can go to your first-ever game and get autographs and pictures with the players,” Pace says. “Game ends, the players are in the lobby or ice skating with the fans, something fans don’t get at the highest level.”  

Call 228-999-8333 or visit the Sea Wolves offices at  4063 Ginger Drive, Suite D in D’Iberville to buy tickets. Visit mississippiseawolves.com for more information.

 

Matt Caputo is a writer from Queens, New York, with bylines in The New York Times, Connecticut Magazine, and The Hockey News. A student in Western Connecticut State University’s creative writing MFA program, he’s at work on a book about minor league hockey.

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