On Friday, Aug. 27, 2005, Steffon Walby was named head coach of the Mississippi Sea Wolves. Two days later, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Waveland, Miss., 10 miles west of Biloxi.
The wind from the hurricane and rising waters from Katrina’s storm surge took a heavy toll on the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, damaging the ice plant, boards and nearly everything else, forcing hockey on the Gulf Coast into a two-year hiatus.
“When the storm happened, we had to worry about getting our lives back together, and hockey had to take a back seat for a while,” said Walby, who remained on the Gulf Coast despite fielding several other coaching offers. “This is our home, and I was committed to being here, as were the majority of the folks behind hockey here.”
For the first year after the storm, Walby’s son Braxton, who was 6 years old at the time, was one of nearly 200 players in the Gulf Coast Youth Hockey Association who were stuck with nowhere to play.
The two closest rinks were more than a two-hour drive each way, in Jackson, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla.
“There was more driving than usual the first year after the storm, because now rather than having games at home a couple of times a season, we were driving to everything,” said GCYHA board member Mike Diaz.
The kids took it all in stride, with teams in three different age groups taking second in a tournament despite being unable to practice.
“As a parent, to see that, it was great, because there was no expectation from us, and the kids were just happy to be playing hockey again,” said Walby, a veteran of 11 minor league seasons, including three in Mississippi. “The winning and losing took care of itself.”
Over the past four years, the people of Biloxi and its neighboring communities have worked tirelessly to maintain hockey’s foothold in the Gulf Coast region despite suffering through the worst natural disaster in American history that destroyed lives and homes.
With much of the process of rebuilding homes and lives in Mississippi well on its way, Rick Dedeaux, Diaz and Bo Lindsay, partners in the ownership group of the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Mississippi Surge, have turned their attention towards rebuilding youth hockey along the Gulf Coast.
With the help of local sponsors, the Kids First Hockey Program kicked off at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in January, offering local children an introduction the game while removing one of the toughest hurdles in getting kids to play hockey: cost.
To bring in even more kids, local organizers teamed up with USA Hockey to host a “Try Hockey For Free” day, as part of Hockey Weekend Across America, allowing an additional 45 children to give the game a try.
“We wanted to bring hockey to kids that ordinarily wouldn’t have tried it, either due to expense or having not had the opportunity,” said program director Rick Dedeaux.
“After Hurricane Katrina, we lost a lot of [kids] out of the youth hockey program, and we’re hoping that exposing kids in this way will help boost our numbers back up.”
And the enthusiasm isn’t just limited to the kids. A number of parents have asked about adding an adult instructional league to the program.
“Hockey is by far our favorite sport,” said Carrie-Ann Pierson, a long-time season ticket holder whose 9-year-old daughter, Unity, was getting her first opportunity to play hockey through the Kids First program.
“The program is great because it gives her a chance to try it out without the expense. This really is the only way I’d be able to get her out to play hockey, because of the costs.”
Pierson noted that her daughter needed very little parental coercion to get her involved in the program.
“She’s always been really into hockey since we started coming to the games,” she said. “I had all kinds of sports equipment around the house, from softball stuff to golf clubs, and she didn’t want any part of any of it, but she jumped at the chance to play hockey.”
Unity brought with her the typical enthusiasm of a fan taking the ice for the first time.
“I thought it would be fun to play, because hockey is a really cool sport. It’s very active,” Unity said.
The program also gives Surge players a chance to interact with young fans who are usually on the other side of the glass.
“I think it’s great that the kids who come and see us play get the chance to try hockey,” said Stephen Schofield, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., native who is in his first season with the Surge. “I’d like to think that our team has the same effect on the kids in this area that the Wayne Gretzky trade had on kids in the Los Angeles area when I was little.”
As someone who has coached at every level of the game, Walby noted that the volunteers often get the most enjoyment out of teaching those that are new to the game.
“It’s different coaching kids that are just learning the basics,” said the native of Madison, Wis. “When you are working with kids who can skate and pass, sometimes the improvement isn’t as noticeable, but when you are just building the base for the kids, you really get to see the light bulb click on in their heads, and you can see that you are making the difference.”
It’s been a long road back for hockey on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but the light at the end of the tunnel is visible. On the last weekend in February, Biloxi once again hosted Southern Youth Travel Hockey League games, with teams from Memphis, Nashville, Baton Rouge, Huntsville and Birmingham, visiting Biloxi for the first time since before Katrina.
“It’s a very significant step,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to put into words what it means right now, but it will be great when we get the kids out on the ice. It’s been tough keeping the program together and the kids interested, but it’ll be a good next step when they get out there in a few weeks.”
Leif Skodnick is the public relations director and emergency backup goaltender for the Mississippi Surge.