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Sea Wolves adjusting to loss of Pensacola franchise

by Brian Compton

Steffon Walby is the head coach of the Sea Wolves, whose closest opponent is now 415 miles away.
First, the Texas Wildcatters announced they were moving to Ontario, Calif.

Then, earlier this week, the ECHL announced that the Pensacola Ice Pilots’ membership in the league was terminated.

With their two closest rivals packing up and leaving their respective towns, the travel schedule for the Mississippi Sea Wolves just became even more grueling. Their closest rival now becomes the Gwinnett Gladiators – 415 miles from home.

But Sea Wolves coach Steffon Walby has a message for his team’s fans: Remain calm. All is well.

“The Sea Wolves are pretty solid here once again,” Walby told this week. “The ownership is committed to putting a championship team back on the ice.”

But with the sudden loss of the Ice Pilots, the road to a championship for the Sea Wolves may have just become a little longer. After Gwinnett, Mississippi’s next-closest opponent is the Augusta Lynx. Augusta in 527 miles from Biloxi.

ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna admitted his league was blindsided by the Ice Pilots’ decision to close up shop. Because schedules for the 2008-09 season were already completed, a lot of work must now be re-done in the coming weeks.

Just like everyone else involved in the ECHL, Pensacola Ice Pilots coach John Marks had no idea until last week that his team was closing up shop.

The all-time winningest coach in league history, Marks was informed last Thursday night that he was out of a job. On Monday, he received a call from owner Mario Forgione confirming the highly surprising and untimely news.

“I didn’t find out until Thursday night of last week,” Marks told on Wednesday, clearly still in disbelief. “I had already sent out some of the qualifying offers to the players that I wanted to bring back and I had sent contracts out to some new recruits. It was going to be a much better team.”

Unfortunately, such a scenario is nothing new for the 60-year-old coach. In 2006, his Greenville Grrrowl left the ECHL after a 45-win season. During that fiasco, Marks was offered the head-coaching job with the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ bench. He stayed after Greenville management assured him the team was staying put. Instead, the Long Beach job went to Rick Adduono – whom Marks recommended after agreeing to stick in Greenville.

And now this. Clearly, the ECHL’s all-time winningest coach deserves better.

“This is the third time in two years this has happened to me,” Marks said. “Three years ago in Greenville, we came off a 93-point season and had a pretty good playoff run and they closed the doors. I didn’t get paid the last year of my salary there. The word I use – and you can use this in capital letters – is trust. It’s all about trust. If you can’t have trust, what have you got? I’m not talking hockey … I’m talking life. I’ve always trusted the people I work for.”

As a fellow coach, Steffon Walby of the Mississippi Sea Wolves was saddened by the fact that one of minor-league hockey’s all-time best is suddenly without a job.

“I just feel bad, because he’s an unbelievable coach,” Walby said. “He’s great. He demands a lot, but at the same time, he’s educated a lot of people to go on to the next levels.”

A dejected Marks admitted he felt betrayed by Ice Pilots’ ownership. The hope now is simply he can take his 485 wins elsewhere – and sooner rather than later. A vacancy was created in Reading on Wednesday when the Royals announced it had mutually parted ways with coach Karl Taylor.

“I just hope I can find a job quickly and just go on,” Marks said. “I’ve always been loyal to whoever I’ve worked for. I know I have the capabilities of winning and coaching and developing, yet here I sit looking for a job. You shake your head. When you’ve been at it as long as I have and been as successful as long as I have, you don’t really think about being in this situation very often. Now I have to try and convince somebody to hire me.”

Marks seems intent on being behind the bench in any capacity. With an eagerness to coach in the American Hockey League, Marks said he would not have any problems accepting an assistant’s job.

“I’m a coach,” Marks said. “Titles aren’t important to me. I just like coaching. I’m sort of undeserving of what’s taken place.”

ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna agreed. Dating to his days as the Trenton Titans General Manager, McKenna is well aware of the amount of success Marks has enjoyed. Because of that, the commissioner is certain that the coach’s unfortunate and undeserving status will only be temporary.

“John’s been around a long time,” McKenna said. “He’s the (ECHL) all-time leader in career coaching wins. It’s a difficult situation for him, but he’s a good coach. I’m sure he’ll land on his feet somewhere.”
“If anybody wants to relocate or start operations, all of those things are done now at our midseason meetings in January,” McKenna said. “The timing of this is very peculiar. It’s difficult in now that we’ve got to redo the schedule, which may mean some date loss for teams, particularly in the South. It just leaves everyone in a bad spot.”

Pensacola had an opportunity to announce it wasn’t returning to the ECHL back in January during the league’s mid-season meetings. It was at that time when the Texas Wildcatters announced they were relocating to Ontario, Calif., and the Columbia Inferno entered voluntary suspension due to arena issues.

“We knew they were trying to sell the team and that they had ongoing discussions with various groups,” McKenna said. “But advising us that they weren’t going to play at this late date certainly threw everybody for a loop.”

“I was really surprised that it was this late,” Walby said. “The first time they had to chance to say, ‘Yeah, we’re out of here’ was in January. The next time was in April. Now they wait until the schedule is out? It’s just very shocking. The fans might have gone to more games towards the end of the year had they known that this was going to be it.”

With a potentially brutal travel schedule now in the mix for the Sea Wolves, recruiting this summer could be hindered due to a player’s reluctance to spend so much time on the bus. But Walby is confident it won’t be a problem, and pointed to the long travels of the Florida Everblades as evidence. The Everblades – who play their home games just outside of Fort Myers – have to bus 583 miles to visit their closest rival, the South Carolina Stingrays.

“You look at Florida … they’re not (in) any better (shape),” Walby said. “In essence, if you want to play in the South, now there’s only two of us. Pensacola had way better beaches than here, but we were still able to attract because of everything else this place has to offer. I think the buyers’ market is now swayed on our side as far as recruiting for this year. But I hate to see teams go by the wayside. It makes it very difficult for younger players and coaches to get their opportunities.”

McKenna said the Sea Wolves won’t be the only team affected by the Ice Pilots’ departure. Basically, each team in the South Division now faces more travel.

“The loss of Pensacola for them is difficult,” McKenna said. “I think losing Texas probably was not a difficult situation for either Pensacola or Mississippi. But it is going to make it difficult for all of our teams in the South in terms of rivalries, schedule and travel.”

It won’t happen this season, but the ECHL is at least exploring the return of teams in Greensboro, North Carolina and Greenville, South Carolina. But McKenna is waiting for ownership groups who are committed to putting a viable product on the ice, which would avoid another shutdown.

“I think it’s always been there,” McKenna said. “We just want to make sure that whatever market we might go back into, we want to make sure we have a good business plan and solid ownership. If we have those things, we’ll move forward. If we don’t, we’re better to sit on the sidelines and wait until those things are in place.”
Taylor leaves Reading – Karl Taylor and the Reading Royals have mutually agreed to terminate their respective contractual obligations, it was announced on Wednesday. Taylor had one season remaining on a two-year extension executed during the 2006-07 season.

“We thank Karl for his efforts on behalf of our organization and wish him and his family the best in their future endeavors,” Reading General Manager Gordon Kaye said in a statement. “The Royals have begun the search for the team’s next coach, and we anticipate moving with appropriate diligence and speed in reaching that very important decision.”

Around the ECHL – Greg Puhalski will return as coach of the Wheeling Nailers, it was announced on Wednesday. Puhalski replaced Glenn Patrick on Jan. 2. … South Carolina Stingrays president Darren Abbott was named the league’s Executive of the Year on Tuesday. The award, which is determined by a vote of ECHL Governors, was handed out at the league’s Board of Governors Meeting last weekend in Westminster, Colo. … The Johnstown Chiefs signed forwards Joey Olson, Joel Gasper and Domenic Maiani. … The Florida Everblades re-signed forward Jarret Lukin. … The Fresno Falcons announced that goaltender Jake Moreland will be returning to the club. Moreland went 22-11-4 with a 2.64 GAA last season. … Former Trenton Titans coach Troy Ward was named the assistant general manager of the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros. … The Stockton Thunder have extended their affiliation with the Edmonton Oilers for another season.

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