Many of us have spent hours tailgating in the lots around the Sports Complex. Whether its before a Jaguars game, Florida-Georgia, or even a fireworks night with the Jumbo Shrimp, tailgating is certainly a Jax tradition. However, if you stop by Lot Zamboni (Lot Z on the north side of the Arena) before a Jacksonville Icemen home game, you'll find a different sort of tailgate, one where hockey sticks are more likely to be used than flying footballs.
Meet the Puckheads! The most intense group of fans of Jacksonville's new hockey team.
"You have to come experience it. Even if you've watched a game on tv, nothing beats coming to an actual game and experiencing the environment that's created inside of a hockey arena." Puckhead Beth Searles told us.
Hours before Jacksonville's newest team takes the ice, their most intense fans are in full tailgate mode. Before a Saturday game, the Puckheads tailgate in Lot Z can have 40-50 participants, starting four hours before the game does.
"The inaugural game we started to tailgate with one table, six or seven people, and from there its grown tremendously." Puckhead Rich Koerner said.
"Its fun to get to see everybody (at the tailgate) because we don't always all sit together. Its nice to hang out and bring a little Florida into hockey because most Northern states can't pull this off." Searles said.
The Puckheads were first born on Facebook, a few months before the season began. Less than a year old, the group has almost 950 members and continues to grow quickly.
"You can show up to the tailgates. You can become a member on our Puckhead (Facebook) page. Anyway you want. We welcome everybody here." Koerner said.
The Puckhead group has been a big part of the Icemen's success at the box office. Throughout their first season the team has been in the top five in attendance in the ECHL, a 27-team league that spans from coast to coast, including two other Florida teams (Orlando and the SW Florida based Florida Everblades).
The Icemen average nearly 5,400 fans per game at the Veterans Memorial Arena. If the Puckheads have their way, that number will continue to grow. "I've heard already throughout this season that once a child has seen a hockey game, he's asking his parents to go back." Koerner said.
If you haven't seen the Icemen in person yet, you have two opportunities this weekend. They host the Atlanta Gladiators Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and the Allen Americans Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $10 and are available here.
Notes from our other Jacksonville teams:
- The Jacksonville Giants next home game is Saturday February 17 at the Veterans Memorial Arena against the Orlando Waves at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available here .The defending American Basketball Association champs are continuing to be a dominant force in the ABA, including a 144-101 win over the Florida All-Stars last Friday night at Ponte Vedra High School..
- While the future of their league (North American Soccer League) remains very much in doubt, the Jacksonville Armada will hit the pitch at Hodges Stadium this spring as a member of the lower level NPSL. The Armada will play in the Sunshine Conference against other teams from around Florida. The team will also play in a preseason event in the Tampa area against Major League Soccer's D.C. United on February 21 at the Joe DiMaggio Sports Complex in Clearwater. Learn more about the Armada's plans on their website http://armadafc.com.
- Want to work for the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp this season? The team is looking for Food & Beverage gameday employees and will hold a job fair on Tuesday, February 13 from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. The team starts the season on April 5 in Jackson, Tennessee and their home opener is Wednesday April 11. For more information go to http://jaxshrimp.com. The team is also hosting a family movie night on Saturday, February 10 with Disney's "Moana" playing on the big screen at 7 p.m. Tickets are just $1 and are available at the box office.
- The Jacksonville Sharks, the defending National Arena League Champs, announced their promotional schedule for 2018. The arena football team kicks off their home schedule on April 14 against the Massachusetts Pirates with "Country Night". Learn more about Sharks theme nights here.
Back in the Minors author Neal Bennett is the former Digital Director at First Coast News and currently works for the station's owner, TEGNA Media. He's a big fan of all of Jacksonville's minor league teams and attends dozens of games per year.