By Craig Handel

 

Everblades Hertz Arena

Everblades Hertz Arena

In the 25-plus years that the Florida Everblades have been in Estero, they’ve been known for two things – championship-level hockey and community involvement.

This season, the Everblades will aim to accomplish what no other ECHL team has done – a three-peat. It’s an idea coach Brad Ralph and his players openly embrace.

“I tell people we’re going to win it again – three-peat,” goaltender Cam Johnson said. “Get ready, we’re going for three (titles).”

Meanwhile, the Blades have been involved with numerous charitable initiatives over the years. The most popular are the Teddy Bear Toss, Military Suite Night and jersey auctions.

The Blades also have:

  • Reached more than 100,000 students through educational assemblies and reading programs.
  • Donated millions of dollars to local organizations through jersey auctions and ticket fundraisers.
  • Had players and mascot Swampee make more than 700 public appearances.
  • Donated autographed merchandise to more than 1,000 local charities for auctions, dinners and raffles.

When did the team become involved in the community?

“Right from outset, really,” Everblades CEO and President Craig Brush said. “Where it became really well-known is when we got involved with Barbara’s Friends.”

Barbara’s Friends aims to help kids with cancer and was one of many groups that raised money for the building of Golisano Children’s Hospital.

The first time the team held the Teddy Bear Toss, ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman was in the stands. He was so impressed, Berman made it one of his top 10 plays when he returned to the studio. Everblades players and staff brought thousands of teddy bears to Lee Memorial and later the children’s hospital from their annual toss-in game a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Brush recalls NHL Hall of Fame hockey coach Scotty Bowman taking out his phone to take pictures. He had never seen a teddy bear toss. Brush explained what has become a Blades annual tradition – fans toss stuffed animals onto the rink after the Blades score their first goal of the game.

“It’s good for the players to interact with the kids,” Brush said. “There’s nothing about this that isn’t good.”

Teddy Bear Toss

Teddy Bear Toss

While Brush gives credit to Shannon O’Flaherty for Teddy Bear Toss, he credits his wife Kyle for Military Suite Night. In every regular-season game, a Southwest Florida woman or man who has served our country is recognized.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Brush said. “We get tons of letters. One person who fought in Vietnam said he never was recognized before. We had another guy who fought at Iwo Jima.”

Brush noted that one couple donated approximately $100,000 over the years on the auctions.

 

Going for the Trifecta

When told about Coach Ralph’s comments on a “three-peat” for the upcoming season, Brush said, “I think it’s a great challenge. Certainly every team is gunning for you, so you have to put your best effort out there.”

Brush said the early part of the season could be difficult because the Blades’ parent club, Florida Panthers, have some players on injured reserve. That means the Panthers will get reinforcements from Charlotte, and Charlotte will get call-ups from Florida.

But the Blades still have Johnson, who has gone 31-7 in the last two postseasons. He earned MVP honors for the second year in a row as he led the Blades to series wins over South Carolina, Jacksonville, Newfoundland and Idaho for the Kelly Cup title.

“The past couple of years have been unreal,” Johnson said. “It was nice to play with the same core group of guys. My first year, we had COVID end our season. Otherwise, I honestly thought we were going to win it that year. It’s just been a great experience, a lot of fun.”

Ralph, who has gone 565-243-81 while coaching in the Southern Professional Hockey League, Western Hockey League and ECHL, suffered crushing postseason losses in his first 12 seasons, including one with the Blades in 2018 when they lost Game 7 of the Kelly Cup to Colorado at home.

However, the last two seasons have ended with those long-deserved titles.

“The first one was exhilaration,” Ralph said. “The second one, I felt more like there was a lot more emotion, a sense of accomplishment. Maybe it was because we weren’t the favorite, maybe we were the unlikely team.

“But to win it, it re-established the fact that the first one was not a fluke. We’re good at what we do,” said Ralph.

While the veteran players showed the younger players what needed to be done to repeat, he said the young players provided a jolt of “energy, enthusiasm and thirst to win.”

Ralph admits the eight-month grind to win a title is demanding, but his feelings echo Johnson’s.

“The next challenge is to win it again,” Ralph said. “What else can we do? A three-peat never has been done. It would be a great opportunity to enhance our franchise’s history.”

Through retirement, the Blades have lost forwards/wingers John McCarron, Blake Winiecki, Levko Koper, Michael Neville and defenseman Ben Masella, although Johnson said, “I’m working on him.”

Ralph said there are other factors.

“For some, it’s quality of life, or moving up (to the American Hockey League),” he said. “With some it’s money, with some it’s family. When players are making these decisions, it’s not easy. Some are willing to sacrifice $10,000, $20,000 for quality of life. Some want to make money while they can.

“The only thing we can control is that when they’re here, they really enjoy themselves.”

Also gone is assistant Jesse Kallechy who became the Fort Wayne Komets’ new coach. He’ll be replaced by Anthony Peters, who played 100 games in goal for the team. Because the hiring came in August, Ralph did more recruiting than normal, and Johnson said the coach often called to get his perspective on certain players.

As expected, Ralph said he received a lot of positive feedback from prospective recruits. However, he also received feedback that may surprise some fans; those players who think they’re going to coast on a two-time defending champion will be in for a surprise.

“It’s not like you get every player you want,” he said. “There also were a lot of guys apprehensive about the success we had and intimidated about the expectations of winning and doing it all over again.

“But the players that want to win and want to come and are willing to go down that road, those are the guys I’m looking for. Once you enter the door, you can’t hide. Through video and workouts and conditioning, there’s nowhere to hide.”

Joining Johnson as returners are forwards/wingers Joe Pendenza, Logan Lambdin, Sean Josling, Robert ‘Bobo’ Carpenter, center Cam Darcy and defenseman Cole Mobert. Darcy may be out until December or January because of an injury.

Now 29, Johnson is on a one-way contract with Charlotte in the American Hockey League. He said he loves living in Florida and playing in Florida and is working toward his real estate license. While one would think his clutch goaltending the past two seasons would give him more chances to show what he could do in the AHL, he said draft picks and free-agent signings by the parent club Florida Panthers often get preferential treatment.

“Other teams have called and showed an interest, but I don’t want to go anywhere else,” Johnson said. “I’m happy where I am, and I’m happy with everything I’ve done.”

That means Ralph will have to bite his tongue when he gets a noise complaint about Johnson and his teammates being too loud.

“We just have to get together outside the rink,” Johnson said. “I say, ‘I’m sorry it got a little loud, but Ralphie, it’s working for us. Everyone has to like each other, pull for each other. That’s a big part of it. It’s important and plays a role in what we do on the ice.”

5-20-23 FLA vs NFL Kelly Cup Playoffs Round 3 Game 2 2OT Win from #25 John McCarron

5-20-23 FLA vs NFL Kelly Cup Playoffs Round 3 Game 2 2OT Win from #25 John McCarron

 

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