Bob Ohrablo is a hockey guy through and through. He has been part of a startup group for minor league hockey teams in Orlando and Jacksonville. Despite a deep and unwavering love of the sport, he wasn’t looking for a third team.
Then, he got a phone call, made some inquiries, had a few meetings and the next thing he knew he was up to his eyebrows in launching what would become known as the Savannah Ghost Pirates.
On Saturday night, that team took the ice in Savannah for the first time with nearly 7,000 screaming, green glowstick-waving Savannahians urging them on at Enmarket Arena. From the haunting pregame introductions to the final horn, a show two years in the making for Ohrablo exceeded expectations.
“That atmosphere was unbelievable,” said Ghost Pirates goaltender Isaiah Saville. “We really hope that it stays that way. We kept feeding off that and it was a great environment. Really fun to play in.”
Savannah hockey fans released 20 years of pent-up energy for the opener. Hockey has been destined for the city since 1999, when crowds first flocked to a college club hockey tournament staged at the Savannah Civic Center. Repeated efforts to bring a minor league team to Savannah failed over the following two decades.
One of those pushing hockey in Savannah for years is Savannah attorney Joe Steffen. Prior to moving to Savannah, he owned an ECHL hockey team in Roanoke, Virginia. But was left wanting when he came to Savannah.
Like many others, Steffen had the hockey bug bad but for 20 years it was a tough sale.
“We just couldn’t make it work,” Steffen said. “The arena wasn’t right for it and the interest wasn’t there at that time. What’s happening now is amazing.”
Ghost Pirates get a scary good reception
Steffen said he got involved with the Ghost Pirates after hearing about a meeting regarding a hockey team possibly coming to Savannah. Out of curiosity, he attended and the juices started flowing. By the end of the day, he was a Ghost Pirates shareholder.
“I talked to Bob and Andy (team owner Andy Kaufmann) and we knew some of the same people,” Steffen said. “They invited me to become a part of this. The only regret I have is I wish I had bought more than I did.”
The response to the Ghost Pirates has been scary good.
They have set ECHL records for season tickets sold and they cannot get merchandise in stock quickly enough. The lines waiting to get into the merchandise shop at Saturday night’s home opener with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits was long and steady.
“We weren’t actually looking (to start a new team),” said Ohrablo, president of both the Ghost Pirates and the Jacksonville Icemen. “We were contacted by the league (ECHL) to take a look at Savannah.
“We knew the people and we decided to drive up and listen to what they had to say. That night driving back to Jacksonville, we just decided we were going to start negotiating a lease and see if we could work that out. We did and here we are.”
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A win on opening night
“Here we are” was Saturday night’s home debut of the Ghost Pirates who, after a scoreless first period, dominated the next two periods to beat the Swamp Rabbits 5-1 to take over first place in the ECHL South Division.
The Ghost Pirates’ (5-1) next game will be at home on Thursday night against the defending Kelly Cup champion Florida Everblades. The following night they will host the South Carolina Stingrays.
Ohrablo and Steffen were two of the happiest people in the Enmarket Arena when Spencer Naas scored the first home goal in Ghost Pirates history with 16:19 remaining in the period. The crowd erupted as it let out a roar nearly two years in the making.
It got louder 72 seconds later when Daniel D’Amato scored. Pat Guay, who now leads ECHL rookies in scoring with 10 points, had a goal at the 11:20 mark. Goalie Isaiah Saville made 33 saves in his season debut.
Brandon Estes had two goals for the Ghost Pirates while Tristan Thompson had a pair of assists. D’Amato, Vincent Marleau, Marshall Moise and Brent Pedersen also had assists.
“It’s pretty cool, to be honest with you,” Naas, who played in Sweden the previous two years, said of scoring the first goal in Enmarket Arena history. “That’s something I would have been pretty happy with anyone getting it, but I was pretty happy to get it.
“It’s fun. I’ll remember that one for a while.”
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Coach Rick Bennett, who has experienced taking two college teams to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four and winning a national championship in 2014, has seen and experienced the impact a crowd can have on a team’s play.
He, along with Naas and Saville, all said the crowd was a major factor and they fed off its energy.
“What we are seeing is far beyond what my expectations would have been for this market,” Steffen said. “As an affiliate with Las Vegas, they have sent us some really good players. You have to give Bob credit for that.
“People have waited a long time for this. The college hockey tournament we have here is a great thing, but people who been to that will recognize the sport but not the speed and physicality. These guys are a step-and-a-half ahead of them.”
There’s no underestimating the importance and value of the Ghost Pirates affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL.
“I’m really proud of what Vegas has done for us,” said Ohrablo, whose Jacksonville team is affiliated with the New York Rangers. “I told Las Vegas this is a special startup, that the people of Savannah have welcomed us with open arms and they heard that.
“They’ve been great in assigning us players and giving us the support we need to make sure we weren’t hamstrung. I’m so proud of the support Savannah has given us and now it’s up to us. We’re a first-place team but there’s a long way to go.”