This is a column by Editorial Page Editor Adam Van Brimmer.
For 18 years, I’ve lived on the shame of “being the hacker who killed hockey in Savannah”.
So said Jeff Brubaker, a budding Savannah Minor League team owner, in 2003. He was upset that I had the boldness to report what city officials told me – that Brubaker’s league, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, wasn’t well fit for Savannah – instead of promoting its narrative.
It drew pathetic crowds after two ACHL games played at the Savannah Civic Center to give the Savannahians a taste of the league’s product. Only 1,243 fans, combined, attended these games, and Brubaker’s excuses ranged from a planning conflict with Riverdance (at the Mercer Theater across the hall) to stories written by hockey-hating sports reporters on the Savannah Morning News.
It turned out that the city’s astute fathers and mothers knew a nighttime outfit was doomed when they saw one. The ACHL split into two leagues after a year due to a dispute between the owners, and the two companies merged without ending a season.
Listen:ECHL owner discusses how to bring minor league hockey to Savannah on The Commute podcast
That episode came back to me last week with the announcement that a legitimate pro hockey league would put an expansion team in Savannah’s new arena in the fall of 2022. The ECHL is affiliated with the major hockey leagues, the NHL, and the Savannah Ownership Group is led by the owner of an existing ECHL team, Jacksonville’s Andy Kaufmann.
Savannah has waited 20 years for this.
From the moment the Savannah leaders first mentioned replacing the Savannah Civic Center in 2001, hockey in the minor league was part of the vision. Ice hockey interest was gripping the sun belt at the time, and every city with a six-figure population wanted one. Macon. Columbus. Greenville and Florence, South Carolina. Even Hardeeville, our neighbors at exit 5.
Savannah was serious. Former managing partner of an ECHL team, Joe Steffen of Roanoke Express, moved to the city around the turn of the millennium. Steffen arranged an exhibition game in Savannah and filled the community center. But the arena, with its poor visibility, miserable changing rooms and lack of luxury suites, put off the ECHL brass.
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Steffen said at the time that hockey in Savannah would likely not be successful without a new facility. Brubaker soon came up with the below-average ACHL product and strengthened Steffen’s standpoint. A month after Riverdance dashed ACHL’s hopes in Savannah, taxpayers approved a penny sales tax that partially funded the purchase of land for an arena.
All these years – and $ 160 million – later, the arena is under construction. And a hockey team has been promised to Savannah.
Coincidentally, I met Steffen just a few days before the announcement of hockey. He’s still in town, practicing law and raising his children. We agreed to stay tuned soon, and when the hockey news broke I couldn’t log into the email server fast enough.
Steffen was dizzy about the ice hockey team. The minor leagues of hockey have moved dramatically since he sold his stake in the Roanoke Express, and it is only recently that the landscape has calmed down.
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The ECHL now has a national presence and is equivalent to Class AA baseball. Each team has two or three serious NHL prospects and another handful of skaters who will at some point see Ice Age in the big leagues. The rest of the list contains highly skilled gamer content to make a decent living playing the game they love.
Comparing the talent Savannahians see in the annual Rumble in the Rink College Club tournament with the ECHL is “like the difference between junior varsity high school basketball and big college hoops,” said Steffen.
When asked whether hockey can make it here and whether I’m off the hook as the city’s hockey stick, Steffen laughed and offered the following: “With this arena, this league and a little marketing, Savannah can be a hockey city.”
Take this, Brubaker.
Contact Adam Van Brimmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.