Hockey is back in Biloxi, at long last, and Chris Cava can't wait to lace up the skates for the home opener of the ECHL's Mississippi Sea Wolves.
The last game in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum was in April 2005, and it has taken 2?? years to repair the damage caused by hurricane Katrina and put the Sea Wolves back on the ice.
So, Cava, who is from Thunder Bay, Ont., and his teammates know the night of Oct. 27 will be special.
"I'd be surprised if the roof doesn't blow off," the 27-year-old defenceman says of the anticipated welcome back from the fans. "I know it's going to be a packed house."
Cava, who made OHL stops in Toronto, Ottawa, Plymouth, Mich., and Kitchener, Ont., played for the Sea Wolves from 2002 to 2005 but had to skate for ECHL teams in Columbia, S.C., San Diego, Calif., Trenton, N.J., and Phoenix, Ariz., while the Sea Wolves were mothballed for two full seasons, but now he's back in what he considers his hockey home.
"I always wanted to come back here," he says from Biloxi. "The fans, the owners . . . I fell in love with this place."
Cava was in his wife Tarrah's home state of Maryland when the hurricane struck.
"After that, we all became free agents and went and played elsewhere," he says. "I'd had my heart set on staying here.
"We just got married that July. Katrina threw a big twist into everything. It was hard to take when it first happened because we had a lot of friends down here and we weren't sure what happened to them. It took days before we could get hold of anybody."
Cava's first time back was in May 2007 when the Sea Wolves introduced him at a news conference as the first player to be re-signed. Chris and Tarrah, who landed a teaching job in the Biloxi area, returned to live in Biloxi last July.
Cava is a stay-at-home defenceman who works the point on power plays, kills penalties and drops the gloves in support of teammates when he has to.
The only other player who was with the Sea Wolves before Katrina who has returned is left-winger Travis Lisabeth of Langton, Ont. At least one-half the lineup is comprised of Canadians, who have had their eyes opened by the extent of the damage from Katrina.
"The devastation was pretty bad," says Cava. "You don't realize coming where I'm from what a hurricane can do."
The hockey team is the main live sports attraction in the city of 50,000, which surprises Cava's acquaintances. Some ask the same question when he tells them where he is playing: "They have ice down there?"
The Sea Wolves held camp in Beaumont, Tex., and played exhibition games on the road to prepare for the relaunch as renovations to their 8,200-seat arena continued.
They are an affiliate of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning. With two games in Florida this weekend, they rode 10 hours in their sleeper bus to skate Wednesday and Thursday in the Lightning's home rink and then were to travel another four hours for their ECHL games in Fort Myers.
They'll then return home to prepare for the long-awaited home opener.
"Everybody has been waiting so long for this day so it's going to be a really exciting," says Cava.
The boards just went in and Hook, the wily wolf of a team mascot, has been cleared for takeoff.
Other Canadians suiting up for the Sea Wolves are defencemen Jeremy Leroux of Lunenburg, Ont., and Michael Couch of Hanna, Alta., goaltenders Gio Flamminio of Prince Albert, Sask., and Jonathan Boutin of Granby, Que., and forwards Mark Hurtubise of Montreal, Mark Rooneem of Grande Cache, Alta., Chase Trull of Mississauga, Ont., and Lance Monych of Winnipeg.
Head coach Steffon Walby played his first three pro seasons with the AHL's St. John's Maple Leafs before skating for the Sea Wolves and eventually moving behind the bench.