Jacksonville’s wait for hockey is over after nine years.
The wait for the Jacksonville IceMen’s first goal took only three minutes more.
For the fledgling team’s first win, though, the hockey fans of Northeast Florida will have to hang on a bit longer.
The long-awaited return of Jacksonville hockey turned into a celebration for the visitors - and the Europeans - in the IceMen’s 5-4 overtime loss against the Orlando Solar Bears at Veterans Memorial Arena Saturday.
Orlando’s J.J. Piccinich scored the winner with 51 seconds left in sudden-death overtime, spoiling the ending for 8,956 fans at the arena.
Third-period goals from Alexander Goulet and Elgin Pearce brought the IceMen back from a two-goal deficit late against the Solar Bears, who have reached the ECHL playoffs in three of the last four years.
Slovakia’s Kristian Pospisil scored twice and Finland’s Mike Vaskivuo also found the net for the visiting Solar Bears, who brought a sizable contingent of traveling fans up Interstate 95 and sowed the seeds for future frozen grudge matches.
But the IceMen couldn’t have made a better start - and nearly an unforgettable finish.
Defenseman Scott Savage etched his name into the record books as the first scorer in the very young history of the IceMen (0-1), and fans didn’t have to wait long for the milestone.
Just 3:32 into the opening period, Savage sliced down the left wing and aimed a shot from a tight angle, squeezing it between Solar Bears goaltender Cal Heeter and the post to light the red lamp.
On a team with more seasoned players like captain Garet Hunt and veteran forward Wacey Rabbit, few could have guessed a more unlikely first scorer than Savage, a 22-year-old who netted only 10 goals in four years at Boston College.
The IceMen also got - and missed - the first penalty shot in club history, midway through the opening period.
The call came after Orlando’s Max Novak dragged down alternate captain Emerson Clark from behind on a breakaway by Orlando’s Max Novak. Clark skated in on the ensuing one-on-one opportunity, but Heeter stopped his shot.
From that point on, it looked like advantage Orlando. Slovakian forward Pospisil put the Solar Bears in front just 20 seconds from the end of the first period, and Orlando extended the lead into the third.
That’s when goals from Goulet and Pearce appeared to give Jacksonville the reward for the hard-working spirit so often preached by head coach Jason Christie, who set his own milestone by tying the ECHL’s record for career games coached.
The IceMen drew a sell-out crowd for their opener, the first hockey game for a Jacksonville professional club since the Barracudas ended their six-year run with a loss to the Knoxville Ice Bears on April 13, 2008.
Meanwhile, a budding Sunshine State rivalry - the teams play eight more times during the 72-game ECHL campaign, which runs through the winter into April - gathered some spice.
Clark and Pospisil dropped the gloves for a second-period fight, and Hunt drew a game misconduct for his role in a scrap with Orlando’s Joe Perry moments later.
The IceMen missed two open shots in a turbocharged, end-to-end overtime period before Piccinich ended the night on the counterattack.
The IceMen have a week to hone their chemistry before they return to the ice at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21 against the South Carolina Stingrays.