UPDATE (01/25/17): Minor league hockey is returning to Jacksonville!
As we mentioned in our article discussing recent attempts at sports teams in Jacksonville, the city had a minor league hockey team known as the Jacksonville Barracudas that played from 2002 to 2008. However, this was not the First Coast’s first attempt at sustaining a hockey team.
The beginnings of hockey in Jacksonville date back to the 1960s, with the establishing of the Jacksonville Rockets. The Rockets began play in 1964 in the now-defunct Eastern Hockey League, playing their home games in the Jacksonville Coliseum. The Rockets have the claim to fame of being the first true professional hockey team in Florida; at the time, the newly-built Coliseum was one of the only arenas in Florida with the capability of housing a professional hockey team. The team operated from 1964 to 1972, playing most of its home games in Jacksonville with a brief stint of splitting time between here and St. Petersburg.
The team struggled financially; hockey was not a big draw in Florida at the time, and the team’s poor play did them no favors. It would fold in 1972, but not before introducing an important figure to the Jacksonville area. Bob Sabourin, the team’s coach and general manager at the time of its demise, would remain in the city and continue to pursue the idea of hockey in Jacksonville. He would go on to own another minor-league team in the city as well as co-owning Skate World, which lives on today as Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex.
Luck seemed to be on the First Coast’s side when, just a year later, the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Barons opted to relocate to Jacksonville. The Barons had been an established franchise for over 30 years and had won 9 league championships, providing the solid reputation the Rockets lacked.
That reputation didn’t seem to help; instead, the move to Jacksonville marked the death of the storied franchise. The team would finish second-to-last in its division in what would be its only full season in Jacksonville. Cleveland-based owner Nick Mileti, having allegedly lost $1 million on the project, sold the team off, and it would subsequently cease operations.
Following this second failure of hockey in Jacksonville, interest for continuing the sport essentially disappeared. Sabourin and other local hockey enthusiasts continued to promote the sport on a smaller level, but it would be another two decades before the city would get another chance to prove it deserved a hockey team.
That next chance would come in 1992, kicking off what would be another lengthy stretch of experiments in Jacksonville hockey. The Jacksonville Bullets became one of five inaugural franchises of the Florida-based Sunshine Hockey League. The team would make it to the championship game three seasons in a row (losing each time), but still struggled to attract fans. Average attendance for home games never went higher than around 1,900, even despite playing some home games in the Coliseum. The team played most of its home games at Skate World; Sabourin and his fellow Skate World owners purchased the team in 1994. The team limped along a few more years until the entire league folded.
In its final season, the Bullets faced competition from a second Jacksonville hockey team: the Jacksonville Lizard Kings of the East Coast Hockey League. The team originally operated in Louisville as the Ice Hawks, but would relocate to Jacksonville in 1995 and re-brand itself as a more professional attempt at minor-league hockey than what the city had previously been offered. Unlike the Bullets, the Lizard Kings would play all of their home games at the Coliseum and operated with a larger budget. The team made the playoffs twice, and average attendance numbers went as high as 3 to 4 times what the Bullets brought in.
Unfortunately, the large budget would soon catch up to the team. Despite improved attendance numbers, ticket sales and overall revenue was not even close to enough to pay off the debts the team would incur as a result of its aggressive marketing and its expensive lease with the aging, unappealing Coliseum. The team decided to suspend operations to wait for the construction of the new Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, but never resumed once the arena was completed.
This brings us, of course, to the Jacksonville Barracudas. The Barracudas were the most recent attempt at bringing hockey to the First Coast on a lasting basis. They began play in 2002, using the soon-to-be-demolished Coliseum for their first year and a half before moving to the newly-constructed Veterans Memorial Arena in 2003. The team started out playing in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, a league that folded after a year of operations.
The next year, after shifting into the newly-formed World Hockey Association 2, the Barracudas both led the league in attendance and became the de-facto league champions, as playoffs were not held. WHA2 would also fold at the end of the season.
The ‘Cudas finally found a home in the Southern Professional Hockey League, where they would remain until 2008. While the team’s performances were up-and-down, attendance gradually rose. Unfortunately, it still wasn’t anywhere near high enough to justify the use of the entire Veterans Memorial Arena, which the arena’s operators felt would be put to better use hosting more concert events instead of minor-league hockey games.
For their 2007-08 season, which would be their final season of operation, the team was forced to move to the much, much smaller Jacksonville Ice and Sportsplex venue that had previously been home to the Bullets. The venue could only seat around 1,000 fans, which simply did not allow for enough ticket sales to keep the team afloat. It pursued other options, but there simply were no other viable candidates for a hockey arena in the Jacksonville area. The team ceased operations in 2008.
Since then, another hockey comeback has not yet been attempted. Will it be another two decades before interest picks up enough to justify another attempt? Only time will tell, but for now it seems that hockey has left the First Coast and won’t be coming back in the near future.
For more detailed win/loss and attendance statistics on Jacksonville’s hockey teams, check out HockeyDB.com’s archives.