What better place to spend the drab, chilly winter than in beautiful coastal Florida?
Especially when you’re on the west side of the state, right on the Gulf Coast, it doesn’t get much better.
A city like Bradenton is a perfect destination. Sun, surf, the Tampa Bay Lightning less than an hour away, how could it get better?
What about the city hosting its own ECHL team? This was the plan of the ECHL and the City of Bradenton in the early 2000s – expansion to the beautiful Gulf Coast.
And this is the tragic story of how it all went so, so wrong.
April 2004. The ECHL approves of the franchise termination and relocation of the Columbus Cottonmouths (to join the SPHL) franchise to Bradenton, Florida. The city approved of the construction of a beautiful, 70 million dollar 7,400 seat arena to be called “Lakewood Arena”, to be finished in time for the 2005-06 season. This worked out, with the franchise being granted a waiver for the 2004-05 season due to their relocation from Columbus, Georgia. This arena, being a massive complex, would also double as a hurricane shelter for the City of Bradenton.
By September, the buzz around the team was growing. Hundreds to thousands of season tickets were sold, and fans were ready for hockey. The “Name The Team Contest” reached thousands of entries, before deciding upon an 11-year-old’s entry of the “Gulf Coast Swords”, named for obviously Bradenton being a coastal city, but also after swordfish in the Gulf.
Something stranger happened around the end of 2004 into 2005: everything just stopped. Construction completely halted with only three giant walls, referred to as “Stonehenge”, constructed. The contracted constructors, Waldinger-Albridge, completely stopped construction in February, and never resumed.
The ECHL, confused with no further action, attempted to reach out to the arena construction ownership of DVA Sports in March, and again in April during the league teleconference, to no avail. The league was convinced of the area working, and even offered to allow the team to play their first month on the road to let the arena finish construction.
The Swords, who still had intentions of being a franchise, had already had a coach hired, and desperately asked the ECHL if they could have another year waived, rather to start in the 2006-07 season. Interestingly enough during this time, the team retained their Head Coach, former NHLer Brian Curran, on the payroll with hope. Curran went on to coach the ECHL’s Quad City and Kalamazoo before being in his current league, the Alberta Junior Hockey League, since 2008.
Another year of false hope and no work done, the Lakewood Arena atand in September 2006 the ECHL finally brought down the hammer, terminating the franchise effective immediately. The fiasco leading up to this was astounding: franchise inactivity, multiple lawsuits, and a meager debt of 20 million dollars.
All during this time, only the three walls of Stonehenge had been finished.
The final tale of this sad, sullen franchise hope was the ironic tale of a Swords “season-ticket” holder being given the task of tearing the “arena” down, after the land was won in a foreclosure auction for 100 dollars by the lone bidder, the Schroeder-Manatee Ranchone group.
The local hockey player and season-ticket purchaser was given an undisclosed amount, and was allowed to keep the remains of the arena. The whole ordeal was a loud, and incredibly emotional one.
Since then, there’s been no whiff of professional hockey’s return to this west Florida city, punishing the fans who clearly bought in and were ready to support a team.
This is unfortunately not an uncommon trait of hockey in Florida. It reminds me of the Sunshine Hockey League’s West Palm Beach franchises, who seemed to be a prime area for hockey.
Luckily professional hockey has deep roots still in the SPHL up to the NHL, but has missed out on so many more chances because of poor operations.
Featured: Bradenton Herald
Arena through wire: Sarasota Waters blog)
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