Craig Brush had Collier County very much in mind when he formed the Florida Everblades in 1998 while also building their home, Germain Arena, back in 1998. LAURA GATES
Ask Florida Everblades President and General Manager Craig Brush about the impact Collier County has had on his minor league hockey franchise over the last 20 years, and he’s quick with an answer.
“One of the reasons that we selected this location originally was so that we could access both (Naples and Fort Myers) marketplaces, and we consider each one of equal value,” Brush said Tuesday during a media luncheon inside Germain Arena’s Big Cypress Club.
Brush, along with partners Peter Karmanos Jr. and Thomas Thewes, founded the Everblades in 1998. This weekend, the Everblades will begin their 20th ECHL season by hosting the Atlanta Gladiators. Game times are 7:30 p.m. on Friday, and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
Ever since that inaugural 1998-99 season, the Everblades have been a reliable source of nighttime entertainment for Collier County families willing to make the easy trek north on I-75.
Putting a winning product on the ice has not been much of a problem for Brush, who, while playing for Cornell University in 1970, was a member of the only undefeated NCAA championship hockey team in history. The Everblades have been one of the ECHL’s winningest franchises since Day 1. Their .633 all-time win percentage (with a record of 798-430-135) ranks fourth in league history.
The apex of the team’s popularity came on the night of Wednesday, May 23, 2012. After a couple of failed attempts in the finals the previous decade, the Everblades won their first Kelly Cup — the ECHL’s championship trophy.
Of course, having promotions geared toward the younger fans — like the wildly popular Teddy Bear Toss Night — is another way to draw consistently strong crowds. This season, in addition to the Teddy Bear Toss (Dec. 9), the Everblades will hold a Marvel Superhero Night (Nov. 18) — it’s “going to be huge for us,” Brush said — and Star Wars Night (Dec. 16). The Star Wars promotion will coincide with opening weekend of the movie franchise’s eighth installment, “The Last Jedi.”
Asked what he thought the ratio of Collier and Lee County fans was at Everblades home games, Brush — who lives in Lee County but plays out of Golf Club of the Everglades, located off Vanderbilt Beach Road east of Collier Boulevard — called it “an even split.”
Brush wants to return the favor to Collier County by helping one of its biggest attractions — the Naples Zoo — get back on its feet. A couple years away from celebrating its 50th anniversary as an iconic Naples landmark, the zoo was hit hard last month by Hurricane Irma.
The Everblades are donating $1 of every ticket sold from last week’s two preseason games against the Orlando Solar Bears and this weekend’s two season-opening contests at Germain Arena. The donated funds will go toward zoo relief efforts to repair damage and provide much needed supplies and care to the zoo’s animals. Multiple enclosures and exhibits were impacted by Irma’s fierce winds, with downed trees responsible for some of the damage. Flooding was also a problem throughout the park. Two greater kudu, a type of African antelope, died as a result of the hurricane.
“I’ve got a soft spot for the zoo,” said Brush, a native of Milton, Ontario, who was born in 1948. “I built a vacation home here (in Lee County) in 1988 and so my kids were of the age … we did go to the zoo at those times. And now, I’ve got grandchildren and every time they’re down here we go to the zoo.”
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