Florida Hockey History: A look back at the Jacksonville Bullets
The Bullets played second fiddle to the Blaze in the short-lived Sunshine Hockey League
The Jacksonville Bullets were one of four charter members, along with the West Palm Beach, Lakeland Ice Warriors and Daytona Beach Sun Devils, of the Sunshine Hockey League, a Class A level minor-league circuit that started up in the state of Florida in the fall of 1992, the same year the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning joined the NHL.
Jacksonville had previously hosted the Eastern Hockey League’s Jacksonville Rockets from 1964 to 1972 and the final days of the legendary Cleveland Barons of the AHL before it went under in 1974.
Playing out of the Jacksonville Coliseum and another venue called Skate World, the first edition of the black, gold and white Bullets posted a 22-23-2 record under head coach Lou Franceschetti during the inaugural 1992-93 SuHL season. While that pedestrian mark was good for second place in the new league, the Bullets finished a whopping 31-points behind the first place Blaze. After playing four games for the ECHL’s Roanoke Valley Rampage, center Mark Thompson joined the club and ended up leading the team in goals (26), assists (36) and points (65). Forwards Joe Musa, Joey Simon and Frank Gianfriddo all broke the 20-goal plateau. Blair Ranger, who started the season with Daytona Beach, became Jacksonville’s number one goaltender and posted a 11-12-1 record and 4.25 GAA. Backup Doug Keans recorded the team’s only shutout that year.
The Bullets advanced to the Sunshine Cup by sweeping third place Daytona Beach two games to zero, but they were no match for the Blaze, who took the title in three straight games.
Now coached by Keans, Jacksonville finished in second place again during the 1993-94 season, which saw the NHL add the Florida Panthers, and pulled closer to West Palm Beach in the standings, finishing 12 points behind the defending league champions with a 32-21-1 record and 65 points. Musa took over as the team’s scoring leader and posted franchise records with 45 goals, 55 assists and 100 points. Newcomer Brian Gruning produced 42 goals and 94 points while Thompson piled up 77 points in 52 games. ECHL veteran Mike Marcinkiewicz fired in 36 goals and Gianfriddo lit the lamp 35 times for the league’s most potent offense. Peter Jervis took over as the team’s top goaltender an went 21-11-0 with a 3.87 GAA and one shutout and started all five playoff games.
The only thing that was different for the Bullets in the postseason was that they swept Lakeland in the opening round as once again, they were dispatched in three games by the Blaze in the Sunshine Cup final.
The 1994-95 season was the final campaign under the Sunshine League moniker and saw the original four Florida teams 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. Jacksonville went 33-23-1 to finish in second place a third straight time and its 67 points were 13 points off the pace set by West Palm Beach. Thompson paced the Bullets with 90 points and matched Musa’s franchise mark of 55 assists. Musa was right behind him with a team-leading 40 goals and 88 points while Gruning contributed 37 goals and 86 points and Gianfriddo chipped in 38 goals. Jervis posted 20 wins, a 4.13 GAA and two shutouts, while his backup, David Laudato went 13-12.
For a second straight season, the Bullets eliminated the Ice Warriors in the opening round, setting up a third and final Sunshine Cup showdown with the Blaze, who again triumphed in a three-game sweep.
In 1995-96, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Lakeland and Daytona Beach joined the Winston-Salem Mammoths and Huntsville Channel Cats in a new loop called the Southern Hockey League. The Bullets, who were the only one of the Florida-based teams to keep its original identity, couldn’t maintain its winning ways. They finished in last place under new head coach Dan Belisle with a 23-33-4 record, and along with bitter rival West Palm Beach, missed the playoffs. Ottawa native Craig Mittleholt lead the SHL with 60 goals and finished third in the league in scoring with 104 points. After playing 19 games for the ECHL’s Columbus Chill the season prior, left wing Greg Murray joined the Bullets and put up 38 goals and 82 points in just 48 games. Cory Gustafson potted 21 goals and a team-leading 50 assists. Thompson bagged 20 goals and defenseman Gilles Richard finished fifth on team in scoring with 53 points. In addition to battling the five teams in its league, the Bullets had to fight a war with a new ECHL franchise, the Jacksonville Lizard Kings, on the home front after the suspended Louisville IceHawks franchise was revived and relocated south
The Southern League didn’t survive to play a second season and 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 Bullets ceded Jacksonville to the Lizard Kings, who survived another four seasons.