When the Jackson Bandits hit the ice in the Mississippi Coliseum on Oct. 23, it will be one of many hockey teams springing up in the South.
“The explosion of hockey has been incredible,” said Brad Ewing, general manager of the Jackson Bandits and a 15-year pro sports veteran. “The sport has been growing slowly for eight or nine years through the southern part of the U.S.”
In the last five years, nine hockey teams in southern states have formed in the East Coast Hockey League. The Louisiana Ice Gators in Baton Rouge and the Mobile Mysticks in Alabama formed in 1995. The Mississippi Sea Wolves on the Gulf Coast began playing the following year. A second Louisiana team, the New Orleans Brass, was established in 1997. In 1998, the Florida Everblades and the Greenville Grrrowl were formed. The Arkansas RiverBlades and the Greensboro Generals will begin action on the ice this year, along with the Jackson Bandits.
“When I was with the Houston Arrows from 1994 to 1998, Houston had not had a hockey team for 15 years, but when we brought hockey back, we averaged 12,500 people a game our first year. The Louisiana Ice Gators traditionally average about 10,000 fans per game. Many markets in the south have really taken to hockey, and it will be no surprise when Jackson follows suit and supports the team,” he said. Capacity for the Mississippi Coliseum is 6,886.
Even though the Jackson Bandit home season will begin Oct. 23 against the Louisiana Ice Gators, the team has already played several road games in Florida, said Ewing, who was hired as general manager on July 9. Derek Clancey was named head coach soon after Ewing’s arrival, and has been working with the team’s 20 roster players, he said.
“It’s obviously been a quick process, not only the purchase of the team, but pulling all the elements together to prepare for our first season,” he said.
With a new ice system that replaced one that was more than 30 years old and in poor working condition, modifications to the locker rooms and other improvements, expenses have totaled nearly $1 million, Ewing said.
“In addition, we had to name the team, in a name-the-team contest,” he said. “We had nearly 2,000 entries. Some of the names that didn’t make the cut?
Jaguars, Jackals, Catfish, Mudcats and fishing-relating names. I thought Ice Storm was a clever name since there are a lot of ice storms here, but we ended up discussing the role of the Natchez Trace and its place in Jackson’s history. We talked about the role of some of the fairly famous bandits along the Trace that would hang out and wait for traders and merchants. The name Bandits came out of that.”
When the team designed its logo, it opted for a caricature in earth tones to reflect the era of bandits around the 1800s instead of ferocious logos with sharp teeth and broken hockey sticks in bright colors like most teams use, Ewing said.
“Tommy Ramey of The Ramey Agency was an integral part in getting the marketing part started,” he said. “All of us that helped get this team started will take a moment and think about Tommy on opening night and hope that he’s looking down and smiling on what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
For the last two years, the team played as the Chesapeake Ice Breakers near Washington, D.C., and had suspended operations when J. L. Holloway and Bernie Ebbers purchased it, Ewing said.
“Washington, D.C., is a very expensive market to do business in,” he said. “When you’re trying to operate on an ECHL budget in a market like that, it’s very difficult to get your money’s worth. The money we spend marketing the team in Jackson will go five to six times further than it would in D.C.”
Businesses have been very supportive of the new hockey team, Ewing said.
“Quite frankly, it’s made it easy to pick up the phone and call people and say, ‘I’m with the hockey team that J.L. and Bernie own,’ and everybody takes my call,” he said. “Not everybody has come on board, but they recognize that we’ve got good, solid ownership and support the team in some facet, whether it’s season tickets or sponsorship. That’s quite a luxury for me, knowing I don’t have to worry about any issues of ownership.”
Issues surrounding use of the Mississippi Coliseum have been ironed out, Ewing said.
“Any hurdles that existed four or five months ago have either been agreed to or we’re committed to getting everything done,” he said. “There are some ongoing operational issues, but all of that is being worked out behind the scenes.”
Season tickets have been selling briskly, and floor boxes sold out several weeks ago. Arena box and loge seats – $13 at the gate, $11 for season ticketholders – are nearing sellout.
“Professional hockey, particularly East Coast Hockey League action, is affordable family entertainment,” Ewing said. “Our average ticket price is around 10 bucks and we have a lot of promotions geared toward families. Twenty of our 35 home games are on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. If you’re in business in this market, it’s a great place to advertise your product or service because of the type of crowd we get.”
For more information, call (601) 352-PUCK or check out the Jackson Bandits’ Web site at www.jacksonbandits.com.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.