Florida Hockey History: A look back at the West Palm Beach Blaze

The Blaze were far an away the class of the feisty, short-lived Sunshine Hockey League

The West Palm Beach Blaze were one of four charter members, along with the Jacksonville Bullets, Lakeland Ice Warriors and Daytona Beach Sun Devils, of the Sunshine Hockey League, a Class A level minor-league loop that started up in the state of Florida in 1992, the same year the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning joined the NHL.

After three separate WHA teams, the Miami Screaming Eagles, Florida Breakers and Florida Ice Gators, failed to get off the ground during the 1970s, the Blaze was actually the first minor-professional team to lace ‘em up in South Florida in the modern era.

Playing out of the West Palm Beach Auditorium, and coached by former Montreal Canadiens skater Bill Nyrop, the Blaze went a scorching 38-6-1 during the 1992-93 inaugural SuHL season, which put them a whopping 31 points ahead of the second place Bullets at the end of that first campaign which saw the St. Petersburg Renegades join late and get in 20 games before disbanding. Former Western Michigan University center Scott Garrow led the league in goals (41), assists (45) and points (86) while Rob Celotto (38) and Jim Duhart (32) also broke the 30-goal barrier. Kevin McKay’s 44 assists were the second-highest total in the league. Goalies Todd Bojcun, Bob Cielo and Paul Cohen each won over ten games with Bojcuns 15-1 record being the best of the bunch.

The Blaze got by the Ice Warriors two games to one in the first round of the playoffs before they swept Jacksonville in three games to take the first of three straight Sunshine Cup titles.

1993-94 saw the birth of the NHL’s Florida Panthers a little further south and the Blaze follow-up its initial on-ice success with another first place finish. This time, the club posted a 37-14-1 record  They won another Sunshine Cup by sweeping Daytona Beach in two and the Bullets in three a second-straight time. Experienced ECHLer Brent Fleetwood led the team in scoring with 34 goals and 82 points. Celotto was right behind him with 32 goals and 80 points. Bojcun won a team-leading 20 games and Mike Gregorio led the goalie group with 30 appearances and posted 13 wins while female netminder Kelly Dyer appeared in 7 games and won her only decision.

The 1994-95 season was the final campaign under the Sunshine League moniker and saw the original four joined by the Fresno Falcons, formerly of the PSHL, who played 16 experimental regular season games before joining the Western Coast Hockey League the next year. The Blaze recorded a 38-15-4 record and again finished comfortably ahead of the second place Bullets. West Palm Beach duplicated ts playoff performance from the prior season with a two-game sweep of the Sun Devils and a three-game sweep of tough-luck Jacksonville in the championship round to win a Sunshine Cup. Czech-born forward Roman Hubalek, who put up 45 points in ‘93-94. exploded for a team-leading 38 goals and  franchise-record 95 points.  In addition to Hubalek, the Blaze boasted seven other forwards who scored 21 or more goals, including mainstay Celotto. Bojcun posted a 28-14-4 record while Gregorio won seven games and Dyer three.

In 1995-96, the four Florida-based banded together with the new Winston-Salem Mammoths and Huntsville Channel Cats in a new entity called the Southern Hockey League. A new identity was also in order for the Blaze, who became the West Palm Beach Barracudas after an ownership change. Unfortunately, the Barracudas, now coached by Phil Berger, couldn’t keep the championship run going. They finished in fifth place with a 26-32-4 record, two points behind Huntsville, who claimed the last spot in the postseason and went on to win the only Southern League crown before the league went belly up. Swampscott, MA native Angelo Russo, in his second season with the team, notched a team-leading 36 goals and 65 points. Marty Gareau, who played on all four WPB editions, was right behind him with career-best totals of 23 goals, 40 assists, and 63 points while defenseman Chic Pojar, who spent some time in the ECHL, chipped in 57 points from the blue line. Bojcun was again the main man in net, posting a 23-23-1 record while six different backups combined to go 3-9-1.

Following the demise of the Southern League, the Channel Cats, along with a trio planned 1996–97 expansion teams, the Columbus Cottonmouths, Macon Whoopee, and Nashville Nighthawks all joined the Central Hockey League, while the Barracudas, whose when their home arena was closed and sold to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the three other Florida-based teams, and the Mammoths were consigned to the scrap heap of minor-league hockey team history.