By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
They were one of the feel good stories of the 2010-11 season in the NAHL, the Corpus Christi Ice Rays. Truth be told, there was a lot of unknowns as General Manager Pat Dunn stood at a podium early last summer and announced to the Corpus Christi community and the hockey world, that the team was making the transition from professional hockey to the NAHL, which included head coach Brent Hughes.
One of the biggest unknowns was how would the team compete in the first month of the season as they entered a totally different world of hockey? In their first 11 games, the Ice Rays jumped out to 6-4-1 record (a quality start for a first year club) and spirits were high after Corpus Christi went 3-1 at the NAHL Showcase. Then the community, which showed up over 3,000 strong for opening night in Corpus Christi, was treated to an incredible first junior hockey game in which the Ice Rays twice came from behind to defeat Wichita Falls 4-3 in a shootout.
“We still had a lot to learn about competing night in and night out in the NAHL, but people saw that the hockey and the product were for real and they immediately were on board,” said Dunn. “Organizationally, it was a good feeling to know we had done most of this on our own and a relief to know that it was being accepted,” said Dunn. The Ice Rays remained in the playoff hunt until about the last month of the regular season, but only two wins in their final 17 games sealed their fate. Still, the first-year club finished second in league attendance, averaging over 3,000 fans a game and also managed to raise over $100,000 for charities, both remarkable and telling numbers for any NAHL organization, and numbers to be appreciated.
One of the things the Ice Rays learned was that life in the South Division is a nightly battle, literally. The South Division, which is annually considered one of the more competitive divisions in the NAHL (five of the last eight Robertson Cup Champions have come from the South), also has the unofficial moniker of being called the ‘black and blue’ division. Simply meaning that play in the South Division tends to be a little more physical on a nightly basis. South Division teams averaged 1589 penalty minutes last season, or just over 27 penalty minutes per game per team, which led all NAHL divisions. The Ice Rays were at the top of the heap with 2,079 penalty minutes, the most penalty minutes of any team in the league last season and the second most penalty minutes in NAHL history (The 1997-98 Springfield Jr. Blues had 2,230).
Although fans liked the rough and tumble, take-no-prisoners style, Dunn said that moving forward this season, the focus was on more skill and speed. “We know what to expect now after a year spent playing in the South Division. Not only is it more physical, but the teams that win have some of the best skill and speed in the league,” said Dunn. “That was something we had to address in the off-season and in our tryout camps. We had to be good at recruiting and we had to find players that were going to help us to put the best team on the ice as possible.”
With that in mind, the Ice Rays parted ways with six of the possible 11 players that could have returned this season, a bold statement to what kind of team they are looking to build. The five returners will be relied upon heavily to provide veteran leadership as the Ice Rays look to improve on their win total from last season and make a playoff run. Forward Cody Milligan, still just 17-years-old, returns as the only player on the roster who began last season with Corpus Christi. Forwards Seth Blair and Joe Smereck and defensemen Justin Lutsch and Mychal Monteith, signify the only remaining players from last year’s line-up who will be back in training camp.
The only lingering questions now for Corpus Christi will be which new players can have an impact? One of those players is defenseman Frank Misuraca, who comes to the Ice Rays after two years of experience in the USHL. Another is forward Eric Purcell, who played last season for the Chicago Young Americans Tier I Midget AAA team. In goal, the Ice Rays get a nice surprise with the addition of NAHL veteran Kale Robertson, who sat out last season with an injury, but who played in 30 games and had 17 wins for the Alaska Avalanche in 2009-10.
The support from the Corpus Christi community will flourish and the Ice Rays will continue to entertain in 2011-12, but can the team be more consistent night in and night out and make the playoffs in the South?
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Coulee Region Chill.