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Hockey more than a fad in one American Gulf Coast town

BILOXI, Miss. - Hockey tickets for Valentine's Day? In this Southern seaside town?

Surely there were more romantic gifts Michael Griffioen could have given his wife Wendy.

Then again, the story of the resurrected Mississippi Sea Wolves is one of commitment and loyalty, concepts with a certain currency this time of year.

"Our record right now is not that great. I don't care. We're going to pull for our team and we need this," Wendy Griffioen said during a Sea Wolves game earlier this season at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum.

The Griffioens learned last Valentine's Day that the Sea Wolves, dormant for two years after hurricane Katrina, had opened their sales office and planned to play in the 2007-08 season. Michael Griffioen bought season tickets.

"This is my Valentine's Day present. ... I need the escape. This is awesome," Wendy Griffioen said. "We've lost a lot of our family entertainment. We've got casinos around, but that's not family entertainment. All there is right now is movies and dinners - and this."

It would have been easy to dismiss hockey as a fad in the South, where minor pro leagues rapidly expanded in the 1990s then contracted during this decade. Three ECHL teams along the same Interstate 10 corridor as Biloxi - the New Orleans Brass, the (Lafayette) Louisiana IceGators and the Baton Rouge Kingfish - were gone by the end of the 2004-05 season.

The Sea Wolves, who joined the ECHL in 1996, stayed afloat thanks to local ownership that was committed to Biloxi. But on Aug. 29, 2005, only weeks after the Sea Wolves offered former ECHL player Steffon Walby his first head coaching job, Katrina obliterated Mississippi's coastline.

Water inside the coliseum swamped the first five rows of seats, destroying two Zamboni ice surfacing machines and the scoreboard, which had been lowered to the floor out of fear that it might fall if 140 mph winds tore away the building's walls or roof.

Few could have blamed the franchise for folding or selling to owners from elsewhere who might have moved the team to a Northern city where hockey is embedded in local culture.

It wasn't even clear how many fans would be around if the team would come back.

Along the coastline, homes were flattened, swept off their foundations and churned into kindling by storm surge.

Just down Beach Boulevard from the coliseum sits Beauvoir, the elegant home of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Several massive trees that once shaded the front lawn are gone, leaving boarded up windows in full view for most of the past two years.

Recently, new windows were installed and the exterior got a new coat of paint, but Beauvoir's interior will take longer to restore.

The coliseum, however, is open, a new scoreboard hanging from the rafters, a new Zamboni inside, along with padded gray seats in the first six rows.

The stadium has become a recreation refuge for families, many of whom, like the Griffioens, are still trying to repair their property. It is for Biloxi a symbol of hope much as the rebuilt Louisiana Superdome was to New Orleans when the NFL's Saints returned in September 2006.

The Sea Wolves sold more than 2,100 season tickets this season, a franchise high. Crowds have averaged nearly 4,000 and area businesses, including deep-pocketed casinos, have been eager sponsors.

"The team is healthier now than it has been in probably quite some time," Walby said. "This is a feel-good story, something to rally behind to get away from the everyday grind of what Katrina did and what it still leaves behind."

Walby, a Wisconsin native who is married with young children, could have skipped town when the Sea Wolves suspended operations. He had coaching offers from other teams. Relatives urged him to get out of Biloxi and its daily dose of Katrina-driven depression.

Yet, as long as owners maintained they intended to bring the team back, Walby, whose home survived Katrina with minimal damage, wanted to stay.

"There's a reason why I got this head coaching job," Walby said. "The owners believed in me at the time, so I wasn't about to just jump ship. That would have been the easy thing to do. I got some pretty good job offers. My neighborhood was devastated. But the more I found people rebuilding around me, I said to myself, 'This is where I need to be.'

"It had nothing to do with being a head hockey coach. If somebody wanted to teach me resiliency, I've gotten more reward out of sticking this whole thing out than I could have easily done somewhere else. This has been a life lesson I'll never want to do again, but never trade it in for the world."

He needed only the first five minutes of his first home game to validate his decision to stick around.

About 7,000 fans showed up on opening night, including 13 of Walby's once-skeptical family members that came in from across the country.

Defenceman Chris Cava, a familiar holdover from the club's pre-Katrina days, scored a quick opening goal and the fans went wild.

"I get chills and I'm sorry if I get emotional over it," Walby said. "Opening night is one of those things I'll never forget."

The Sea Wolves ended up losing that game, 5-2, but that wasn't the point.

"I look across the ice and there's my family. They hear about everything and see the progress, 7,000 fans cheering on their brother, son, brother-in-law, for sticking it out after two years, letting you know how much they appreciate the vision beyond putting a hockey team on the ice," Walby said. "I didn't have to win that game. That was a victory for the whole Gulf Coast and for the state of Mississippi to say there's one less thing Katrina took away from us."


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