Florida Panthers predecessors: A look back at the EHL’s Jacksonville Rockets

In the mist of a pandemic and with all things quiet on the Panthers front, let’s check out the first truly professional hockey team in the sunshine state.

Unless you are somewhat of a hockey history buff, you might not know that the story of pro hockey in the state of Florida did not begin in 1992 with the tumultuous birth of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, who were followed just a year later by our own Florida Panthers. The first truly professional team to make a real go of it in the sunshine state were the Eastern Hockey League’s Jacksonville Rockets, who began play in 1964.

After beginning life out of Madison Square Garden as the Eastern Amateur Hockey League in 1933, the EHL went professional for the 1954-55 season and this version of the loop lasted until 1973, when it ceased operations and saw most of the teams that played the final season splinter off into two successor circuits, the North American Hockey League (which was the inspiration for the movie Slap Shot) and the Southern Hockey League.

The EHL may have been a step or two down in quality from the American Hockey League, but the smaller circuit was a trailblazer as far as bringing hockey to untapped markets goes, especially in the American south. A few of these untraditional markets would end up housing NHL teams decades later.

The EHL’s first foray into the deep south came in early 1956 when a fire at Carlin’s Iceland forced the Baltimore Clippers to play five of their remaining twelve home games, as the “Rebels”, in Charlotte, NC. The first game in Charlotte drew a overflow crowd of 10,363 (with an estimated 3,000 fans turned away) and the team was such a success during the short stint that Clippers owner Charlie Rock decided to make Charlotte the club’s permanent home base the following season. After sticking with the Clippers name for another four seasons, the team became the Checkers and their success paved the way for EHL clubs in Greensboro, Knoxville and Nashville before the league opened up shop in the North Florida outpost of Jacksonville in 1964.

The expansion Rockets, who entered the EHL along with the New York Rovers, began play during the 1964-65 season in league’s Southern Division with the Checkers, Nashville Dixie Flyers, Greensboro Generals and Knoxville Knights. The Rockets were stocked with a mixture of minor-league veterans like Paul “Butch” Morris and Ron Willy as well as players just out of juniors or the NCAA like Emory Sampson. The team was coached by Scotty Moore (no, not Elvis’ guitarist) and finished in last place with a 13-57-2 record. Bill Staub led the team in scoring with 73 points while Gordon Dibley got the most work in goal, appearing in 48 games.

Pat Egan took over the coaching reins, while also appearing in 47 games, for the 1965-66 season, but the team fared no better, finishing at the bottom of the division again with a 12-57-3 record. Art Chiupka, who started the season with the Jersey Devils, led the team in scoring with 49 goals and 92 points, while Chuck Goodard became the team’s starting netminder after coming over from the Charlotte Checkers. The team played some of its home games at St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center arena. Games in St. Petersburg were well-attended, leading the EHL to eventually place a team in the Tampa Bay area in 1971 called the Suncoast Suns.

The club changed it’s name to the Florida Rockets for the 1966-67 campaign as it continued to play a portion of its home schedule in St. Petersburg. The team planned on increasing its presence in the state by also playing some games in West Palm Beach but the idea was scuttled due to construction delays at the new Auditorium. Forward Bob Sabourin took over as the team’s coach while continuing his playing career. The club began to show improvement, finishing with a 27-43-2 record, but once again missed the playoffs. Cliff Pennington, who had spent some time with the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins earlier in his career, led the team in scoring with 86 points. Goaltender Harrison Gray appeared in all 72 games, posting a bloated 4.36 GAA and two shutouts.

The 1967-68 season saw the Rockets gain a new rival as the Salem Rebels were added to the Southern Division. The Rockets finally made the playoffs, finishing with a 30-34-8 record, good for fourth place in the division. The club’s improved play finally led to larger crowds coming out in Jacksonville. The Rockets met the first place Greensboro Generals in the first round of the playoffs, but fell 3-2 in the best-of-five series. Ron Willy led the club in regular season scoring with a career-high 103 points. Willy also posted a team-high 7 points in playoffs. Once again, Gray was the backstop, appearing in all 72 regular season games and in all 5 playoff tilts.

In 1968-69, the team returned to using the Jacksonville Rockets moniker. The Southern Division was back down to five teams as the Knoxville Knights gave up the ghost. The Rockets slipped a bit, falling to a record of 27-37-4. They did manage to beat out Salem for the division’s final playoff spot by a comfortable 11-point margin. The Rockets faced the Generals for the second-straight time in the postseason and were ousted once again, this time by a three games to one margin. Ron Willy led the team in scoring for the second time in a row, finishing the campaign with 94 points. Gray saw duty in 54 regular season games while Tim Tabor was the club’s goaltender during the playoffs.

The EHL expanded the schedule to 74 games for the 1969-70 season and the Rockets would hold steady as the Southern Division’s fourth-best team. Jacksonville finished with a 27-37-10 record which meant yet another opening round match-up with powerful Greensboro. This time, the Generals routed the Rockets in four-straight games, outscoring them by a 35-8 margin. 21-year-old Wayne Horne would lead the Rockets attack with 40 goals and 90 points. Future NHL goaltender Michel Plasse would appear in 61 regular season games and start all four playoff tilts.

With Bob Sabourin concentrating on his duties as general manager, Jack Bownass would take over as the Rockets coach for the 1970-71 season. The coaching change would not work out as the club plunged to a ghastly 11-58-5 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years. The club went through four goaltenders, including future Edmonton Oilers keeper Ron Low, on its way to surrendering a staggering 453 goals. Billy Glasham paced the offense with 79 points on 38 goals and 41 assists.

The 1971-72 season would be the last for the Rockets as the franchise folded in December, 28 games into the campaign, with a 6-20-2 record. The club was finally done in by a lack of attendance and the rising cost of icing a pro hockey team in the early seventies.

Despite three straight playoff appearances before the disastrous 1970-71 campaign, the Rockets never truly caught on in Jacksonville, usually drawing crowds around the 2,500 mark, and remained a novelty for much of their history. Although it was a struggle, the Rockets deserve credit for lasting as long as they did considering the quality of the EHL and the challenges they faced in the market. While existing too far back in time to be directly responsible in anyway for the later births of the Lightning and Panthers, the Rockets did pave the way for hockey’s first professional team on the state’s west coast (the Suncoast Suns) and served notice to leagues both major and minor that Florida could and would be a viable home for hockey.

It would be great if one day the Panthers and Lightning honored the state’s relatively unknown Eastern League heritage and faced off for a game in each city with the Cats sporting Florida Rockets gear and the Bolts donning the colorful uniforms of the Suncoast Suns.

Would you like to see the Panthers and Lightning meet each other wearing the uniforms of the Florida Rockets and Suncoast Suns?