Led by local Whistler hockey player, Garrett Milan, the Pensacola Ice Flyers took home the Florida Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) championship in May.
The Ice Flyers swept both of their three-game series in the playoffs on their way to the title, beating the Knoxville Ice Bears in the semi-finals and the Macon Mayhem in the finals to win the organization’s fourth championship. Milan, who was named captain at the beginning of the season, chipped in two goals and an assist in the four playoff games.
“It was a huge honour to get the captaincy at the beginning of the season … It kind of puts a weight on your shoulder to bring back a championship, which obviously we did,” said Milan.
“It was super exciting; it was great to bring a championship to Pensacola after being on and off [with them] for about three years now. It was a weird year obviously with COVID, so I think it was even better at the end of it that we won.”
According to Milan, about six years ago, the SPHL used to be known more for its fights and hits than high-level hockey. But after the Central Hockey League folded in 2014 and players began looking to the SPHL for a place to play, the talent level rose substantially. Couple that with the league being cut down to five teams—half its normal size—and Milan believes this was one of the most competitive years the league has seen in a long time.
“So yeah, I know it’s definitely a league now that maybe doesn’t have the reputation that it should, but if you look down the depth charts on each team it’s a lot deeper than people think,” he said.
“It got a lot better this year, which was nice. And you’re playing the same four teams over and over again, so it’s kind of like a mini-playoff series every time you get on the ice. I think it actually made the championship this year a little bit harder to get, which was kind of cool.”
This championship is the first of his career for the 30-year-old Milan, who has had a somewhat bumpy and certainly unique hockey journey to get to where he is today.
Milan’s career started out playing Junior A with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League before going on to play NCAA Dvision I hockey at St. Cloud State, where he graduated with a marketing degree. From there he found himself bouncing from team to team in all types of unorthodox hockey markets, including Hungary, Germany, Scotland and the southern United States.
While some of his experiences didn’t turn out the way he had hoped, resulting in him changing teams multiple times a year in some cases, the experiences of playing hockey in all these non-traditional markets is something Milan won’t soon forget.
“It’s crazy that the fan support over there is huge as well,” said Milan about the attendance levels and energy in places like Scotland and Hungary.
“Over in Europe, they’re cheering the whole game, they’re not sitting down, they’re banging drums, they’re banging noisemakers, so it’s kind of a cool situation. It’s almost like a little mini-soccer game inside the hockey rink.”
Currently, Milan is in the middle of quarantining in Vancouver after completing the 42-hour drive from Florida this past weekend. But, once his quarantine is over, Milan plans to spend his summer at home in Whistler working with KB High Performance Hockey as an on-ice skills coach, running his own speed and conditioning camp and waiting to find out if he’ll receive any offers to go back to Europe or if he’ll be returning to Pensacola again for next season.
But wherever his hockey journey takes him next, one thing is certain for the Milan: he’s not ready to hang up the skates anytime soon.
“I love the sport. If you’re waking up to go to the rink in the morning and you don’t want to be there then that’s the time to kind of put the skates on the shelf, but I haven’t got there yet,” said Milan, whose focus is on bringing a championship to whatever team he plays on next year.
“It’s a tough lifestyle to give up, but also just the fact that you love the game and that you want to win and that you want to get better. I think if you lose that fire then that’s time to stop playing.”