Late in the third period of what would be a Mississippi RiverKings victory, right winger Mike Tuomi had control of the puck, and a lot of open ice between him and the net.
Mississippi RiverKings players Leland Fidler (3) and Kevin Hamel (11) defend against Pensacola Ice Flyers’ Chris Wilson (22) at DeSoto Civic Center during the RiverKings’ 20th season opening game.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
Tuomi already had scored two goals in the game and a third would give him a hat trick.
So as Tuomi advanced toward the Columbus Cottonmouths goalie, the small but spirited crowd at the DeSoto Civic Center began cheering louder, the most enthusiastic fans ringing their cowbells in anticipation of a score. Tuomi delivered and this Sunday afternoon ended happily, especially for the jersey-clad diehards, as the RiverKings won, 6-4.
Afterward in his small office in the bowels of the arena, RiverKings coach Derek Landmesser spoke of the team’s loyal followers, some of whom began watching RiverKings hockey 20 years ago when it was played at the Mid-South Coliseum.
“Our fans are blue-collar fans,” Landmesser said. “They like hardworking players. So do I.”
They are at least “blue-collar” fans at the point the puck drops and the game begins. Marvin Johnson, 67, is an architect. His wife, Sharon “Shorty” Johnson, is a retired nurse. They and several friends, including 55-year-old dentist Bill Middleton, have season tickets in section 106, just about center ice, in the lower bowl.
“We try to keep track of who’s scoring and who’s lazy,” Marvin Johnson said.
Like a lot of the diehards, Johnson said the RiverKings are the only sports team he follows: “I’d rather take a beating than watch a football or basketball game.”
A few rows down from, Larry Irwin, his wife, Robbie, and their sons Justin, 12, and Kyle, 8, are decked out in RiverKings gear. They, too, are season-ticket holders.
Irwin is a Navy man, stationed in Millington. When he was in San Diego and dating Robbie, they started going to minor-league hockey games. Now it’s a family affair and that’s what Robbie said she likes best about it. Well, that and the fighting.
“And I hate fighting,” she said, “but it’s exciting.”
The game program for this day features a picture of the RiverKings’ Kevin Fukala squared up against an opposing player, Fukala’s helmet off and his mohawk clearly exposed.
It proves to be truth in advertising because in the second period Fukala and a Cottonmouths player drop the gloves, abandon the helmets, circle each other a bit and then start throwing punches.
“Fans in this house really like fighting and that fits with my personality,” Fukala said.
But in the fluid nature of minor-league hockey, a couple of days later Fukala left the RiverKings and the SPHL – Southern Professional Hockey League – for a team in a higher league.
This is the RiverKings’ first year in the SPHL after years in the Central Hockey League and fans have to adjust to almost all new players and several new rules.
“You can tell (it’s a lower level) by the handling of the puck,” said Brian Helms, 43, a mechanic, who with his wife, Rhonda, drives in from Brownsville, Tenn., to take up their seats on the front row behind the glass in the corner, where players come flying toward them.
“I still haven’t learned non-flinch,” Rhonda said. “I still flinch.”
Brian and Rhonda are engaged in every play, pounding on the glass to express the emotion of the moment – whether it’s appreciation for a good save by the RiverKings’ goalie, or the anxiety over a call that sends a RiverKings player to the penalty box.
RiverKings general manager Dave “Ab” Mattice doesn’t worry about fans such as Brian and Rhonda Helms because he knows the team has their loyalty. Mattice said the team averaged 3,300 fans per game last season in the 8,400-seat arena, but the target is 3,500 per game.
“We really need 4,000 to get back to the break-even point,” Mattice said, noting that the franchise lost money last season but declined to reveal how much.
Like all minor league sports teams, the RiverKings offer assorted deals, including $10 “Teen Nights” on Fridays when a ticket comes with a soda and popcorn.
But without any discounts, the cheapest single-game ticket is $16 – more than double the cost of a $6 bluff ticket (when bought in advance) for a Redbirds game.
“They come out once, I guarantee you they will come back,” Landmesser said. “New fans get hooked on the fast pace, the fighting, the action.”
The dentist’s 3-year-old son, Carson, is already hooked. At home when a game comes on TV, he becomes a player, running around and slamming into walls; young Carson could be part of the next generation of RiverKings season-ticket holders.
More immediately, the boy will take his blue-collar hockey mentality to school. Marvin Johnson smiles at that notion, saying: “We think he’s going to be hell at kindergarten.”