August 4, 2014

Southern tour a fruitful one for SPHL-winning local trio


Stevie Bergin, left, raises the President's Cup after the Pensacola Ice Flyers' victory in the Southern Professional Hockey League final. Joe Caveney, right, led the Ice Flyers in scoring.
 

By Mike Zhe

Stevie Bergin is going out a winner.

The Groton, Mass., native and former University of Connecticut standout pulled the plug on his playing career this spring, taking a job coaching with the Boston Junior Rangers organization. His last two seasons both ended with championships playing for the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the Southern Professional Hockey League.

Ross MacKinnon? He’s not done yet.

They celebrated another pro hockey championship on the beaches along the Florida panhandle this spring, one team owner Greg Harris called “an absolute dream season.” And it was a trio of New England guys helping that dream come true — Bergin, MacKinnon and former Fitchburg State standout Joe Caveney (Fitchburg, Mass.).

“We’ve obviously got the beach,” said the 26-year-old MacKinnon, a goalie who grew up in Manchester, Conn., and played juniors with the Bridgewater Bandits, “but the guys in the locker room are what made this special. We had a good core. Just cool guys to hang with and we were having the best time of our lives.”

Fair to say that no New England kid serious about his hockey dreams of one day playing in the SPHL, which in 2013-14 boasted 10 franchises, mostly in the Deep South, and paid players only a few hundred dollars a week. But as the quality of the players has trickled down from the AHL to ECHL and to the lower minor leagues, the ones that do head south have found the circuit legit. 

“I really didn’t know what to expect going down there,” said the 26-year-old Bergin, whose three professional seasons were all spent with Pensacola. “I just knew they had beautiful beaches and that was a good reason to go. But you walk into the rink, you see the fans are passionate.”

At the 10,000-seat Pensacola Bay Center, where the Ice Flyers averaged nearly 3,500 fans for their playoff games — by comparison, half of the 16 playoff teams in the AHL averaged lower than that number — players were embraced through a regular season that saw them finish first and a playoff run where they won a trio of best-of-three series to claim the President’s Cup.

The team’s nickname stems, in part, from the longtime presence of the Naval Air Station in the city, the home of the famed Blue Angels.

“The fans in Pensacola are crazy,” said MacKinnon. “They’re the best in the league, by far.”

Still, a season that had produced a 38-13-5 record was on the brink of disaster when the Ice Flyers dropped Game 1 of their semifinal series against the Knoxville Ice Bears, 2-0, and needed to go on the road for a must-win Game 2; it was their first loss in 14 games. “We were doing so well up until then,” said Bergin. “People thought that just by showing up we could win.”

They even fell behind 1-0 after one period in Game 2 but scored two in the second period en route to a 3-1 win. Caveney’s shot was tipped in by Mitchell Good for the go-ahead score, and MacKinnon was named the game’s first star after stopping 18 of 19 shots. Three wins and nine days later, they had their championship.

MacKinnon said it was the final game of their first-round series against the Mississippi Surge — a 4-3 overtime win on the road that was marked by chippy play and penalties — that may have set them back a bit for Round 2.

“Talk to the guys and they’ll tell you it’s one of the roughest games they’ve ever played,” said MacKinnon. “Dirty, physical. … That game absolutely took a lot out of us.”

As his teammates try to find their way into the most advantageous pro training camps over the next couple months, Bergin prepares to slide behind the bench. He’ll coach the U-18 and U-16 entries for the Boston Junior Rangers. “I’ve played in Pensacola for three seasons now and had a great experience,” he said. “I wish I could do it forever but a good opportunity came around.”

Caveney, who began his college career at UMass-Lowell but became a prolific Division 3 scorer at Fitchburg State, is only 25 and would love to get another look in the ECHL, where he’s suited up for three different teams. He led the Ice Flyers with 26-31-57 totals in 39 games.

MacKinnon’s in a similar boat. The former Neumann (Pa.) University backstop played two games with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL at midseason, having started the year with Tulsa of the CHL.

But he opted to return to Pensacola because that’s where the playing time was, and he finished 22-1-3 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .929 save percentage; he was 6-1, 1.40, .937 in the postseason. In the team’s title run of 2012-13 he was named playoff MVP.

“Ross is a tremendous addition to our team,” said Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff, upon his first return in December. “He’s proven himself as a great goaltender and a great teammate here.”

After he celebrated with the Ice Flyers, MacKinnon got called up for the Central Hockey League by the Allen Americans, where he watched that team win a championship as a backup goalie.

But the second title in Pensacola meant more. That’s the one he had his hand in and will look to build his future on. “Just seeing guys win it for the first time was cool,” he said. “It’s old hat for you. But you put so much in to the whole year, even if I wasn’t with them the whole year, and it’s pretty special.”

This article originally appeared in the July edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.

Email: mzhe@hockeyjournal.com

Twitter: @MikeZhe603