After wrapping up their first Kelly Cup Championship on May 23, the Florida Everblades have done a lot of celebrating. Not only did the club throw an official party at Germain Arena, but the victorious players spent a week escorting the trophy throughout the bars, nightclubs, beaches, and pools of Southwest Florida.
Yet, for team president Craig Brush, the end of the hockey season brought more than mere celebrations. While the executive’s capable guidance certainly merited every toast raised his way, important business suddenly emerged that would impact the Everblades’ future.
Though controlled by the ownership group that runs the Carolina Hurricanes, the Blades have long depended on relationships with 2 NHL affiliates. This strategy provides access to an expanded pipeline of talent and enables fans to watch players climb hockey’s big league ladder. While support from the Canes is assured, the Everblades switched secondary affiliation from the Florida Panthers to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010.
This move has proven a critical part of the team’s recent success. Clearly it makes geographic sense to be linked with the Bolts, since the pro club play only 2 hours away at the world-class Tampa Bay Times Forum. Both franchises undoubtedly share fan support in Southwest Florida. Tampa Bay even traveled south in 2011 to skate at Germain Arena and practice with the Blades.
However, the real benefit of affiliation with the Lightning is the improved stream of talent from their rich farm system. Whereas the Panthers provided few impact players, the team’s new partnership has contributed broadly throughout the past 2 seasons. Sharing prospects with the AHL affiliated Norfolk Admirals, the Blades benefited from system players such as Pat Nagle, Alex Hutchings, Sebastien Piche, Charles Landry, and Kevin Quick in 2011-12.
Yet, this substantial asset recently appeared in jeopardy with the arrival of the Orlando Solar Bears as an expansion ECHL franchise for 2012-13. Many feared that Tampa Bay might seek an affiliation with the new club due to their close proximity to Central Florida. The Solar Bears will play in Orlando’s Amway Center, which sits only an hour’s drive along Interstate 4 from downtown Tampa.
With this week’s announcement of a renewed affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning, those fears did not come to fruition. While Orlando opted to link with the Minnesota Wild, the Blades will continue to receive players from the Bolts and further benefit from a relationship with their new AHL affilated Syrcause Crunch.
Tampa Bay Assistant General Manager Julien BriseBois praised Florida’s efforts in the decision. “We are very happy to continue our partnership with the Florida Everblades,” said BriseBois. “The Everblades and their management have a strong track record of providing a winning environment for our prospects to develop in and we look forward to helping them win another Kelly Cup.”
Those words certainly please Southwest Florida hockey fans. Making the news even sweeter, the Lightning announced they will hold an exhibition game against the Florida Panthers at Germain Arena on Tuesday, October 2, at 7:00pm. The ECHL arena previously hosted Panthers’ pre-season contests and it should make a fun atmosphere for a return of the NHL just days before the Everblades hoist their Kelly Cup championship banner to the rafters of Germain Arena.
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