Saturday will be a hockey night in the Mon Valley — specifically Rostraver — as the Federal Hockey League’s newest franchise makes its home debut at the Rostraver Ice Garden.
The Steel City Warriors will kick off their home schedule with their first meeting with the defending league champion, the Dayton Demonz.
The now-defunct SWPA Magic were originally the Mon Valley’s representative in the league, but that organization never got off the ground.
Enter Annice H. Reaves, whose love of hockey began in the Fort Worth area of Texas, flourished in Orlando and has brought her to the Mon Valley.
An agent and scout, Reaves is the president of Sticks and Stilletos.
“I had a player on the former team and he called me and said that he’d been cut,” Reaves said. “He was tradeable, but not cuttable. So I told him I would be up (from Orlando) to see what was going on.”
And here she is, the owner of the new professional franchise.
“It was bad; there were players sleeping outside,” Reaves said about the post-Magic days. “The first thing I did was rent them some rooms. It was an early Friday morning, I left Sunday night and came back. Now I’ve been here ever since.
“There were 17 guys here without a job. I asked the league what was going on and here I am. I was taking nothing from that team. I did have to take on some local debt, and I’ve handled that.”
Besides the organizational, off-ice aspects, Reaves quickly got into the on-ice product.
“The only players we kept were the ones that wanted to stay and try out. We had two tryouts and did a cut,” Reaves said. “I have some other knowledgeable people I’ve worked with for years from Orlando that were able to assist in a coaching search. … I didn’t even know who the coach was or looked at his resume until he arrived. That’s how crazy it has been.”
Captain Zach Tatrn is thankful for Reaves’ arrival.
“She’s been phenomenal,” Tatrn said of his owner.
“She’s addicted to hockey, I love it. She’s been our savior from Day 1. All the contacts she has … reassuring us that with team success comes individual success.”
The team is currently 0-2 with at Watertown in the season opener (7-5) and at Danville (6-2).
Tatrn, a Lower Burrell native, said those games should have had different outcomes.
“If we stay out of the penalty box, we win those games,” Tatrn said. “We’re a young team filled with rookies, but we have a lot of talent.”
Tatrn is confident that the team is going to get better under coach Ryan Huggett.
“From a team standpoint, so what if we’re a new team,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. We have a lot of good players that really know how to play hockey.”
The team will play at Dayton Friday before coming home for the opener Saturday. On Sunday, the teams will meet again in Dayton.
The team announced Wednesday on Twitter that North Belle Vernon Mayor Craig Ambrose will drop the ceremonial first puck for the inaugural season.
The start of a journey
Reaves described the FHL as a “stepping stone league” where players have opportunities to be called up to the ECHL, the former East Coast Hockey League.
The FHL is an A-level league, the ECHL is AA.
“The one thing I have that I haven’t seen of any other teams is something in writing that shows an affiliation with an ECHL team,” Reaves said. “I have that. It’s a great opportunity for our players. I’m sure we will have some callups.”
She did not disclose which team the Warriors will be affiliated with, but said she has contacts throughout the league.
Reaves is familiar with the ECHL thanks to her experience, first as a sponsor, with the league’s Orlando Solar Bears.
“The biggest thing I can offer these guys is that I’m not making them promises that I don’t intend on keeping,” Reaves said. “Honestly, I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys.”
The team has received rave reviews for its off-ice conduct from the Comfort Inn in New Stanton, where players staying until housing can be secured.
“They’re helping other guests, they’re very courteous and respectful. They have been model guests,” Reaves said of her team. “That’s the kind of team I want to have.”
Reaves said the FHL has been shocked by what she has been able to accomplish in only a few weeks as an owner.
“What we’re doing here, it is usually a six- to eight-month job,” Reaves said. “I have a great group of volunteers and we’ll be moving in staff and game-day operations. Right now, though, it’s all about the players.”
The league has been impressed by all Reaves has accomplished.
“So far, they’ve been pretty receptive of what we’ve been doing,” Reaves said. “I think maybe they were skeptical, maybe they thought we would fail. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. I put a lot of my own money into this, and if I fail, I lose a lot.”
Reaves said the team has been in touch with the Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce and will be the featured speakers at the chamber’s Nov. 18 luncheon at the Willow Room.
“We will definitely be getting involved in the community,” Reaves said. “We’ve hung around the rink and some players have skated with the youth organizations during practices and even during open skates.
“We want to get into the schools and local charity groups as well. Each player on the team has a cause of some sort that they hold close to their hearts.”
The team is active on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter (@FHLWarriors) and Instagram. Tickets can be purchased at the Ice Garden or online through the team’s website, www.steelcitywarriors.com.
“We’re looking to have the website slightly changed. There’s still some things we don’t want on there … there’s still some SWPAs we have to get rid of,” Reaves said.
Being based in the Mon Valley at the Ice Garden has been instrumental in moving the franchise forward.
“To be honest, I was kind of scared when I heard about (Jim Murphy),” Reaves said with a laugh. “Honestly, though, this is the best rink that I’ve been in so far in this league, and I couldn’t ask for a better rink owner. He’s been so great.”
Reaves added that the team will look to improve seating and make any necessary upgrades to the rink.
“My love for hockey started years ago with my son,” Reaves said. “I was a season ticket holder for the Fort Worth Fire and Brahmas and the Dallas Stars for years, with all my work in Orlando …
“I know players and people everywhere. I will kick and scream … do everything I can for this team.”
Jeremy Sellew is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2667.