There's no shortage of unique promotions in minor professional hockey. Back when it was an ECHL club, the Bakersfield Condors hosted "Charlie Sheen Night" to celebrate the actor during his peak days on Two and a Half Men. The defunct Las Vegas Wranglers once held a night to dishonor former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of corruption. Heck, the Long Beach Ice Dogs gave 1,000 women in attendance team-themed underwear based on the show Desperate Housewives.
Those can be filed under "weird." The Fayetville Marksmen's game on the Fort Bragg army reserve, on the other hand, lands firmly in the "cool" category.
On October 12, only days before the beginning of the 2019-20 SPHL regular season, the Marksmen will host the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs at Cleland Ice Rink on Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world. Three years ago, the installation held a regular-season MLB game between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves, which makes the hockey game the second professional sporting event has taken place there.
The hockey game is near and dear to Marksmen owner and Fort Bragg veteran Chuck Norris' heart. (No, not that Chuck Norris.) “Cleland was a big part in my life during my time in the service," he said. "For a former soldier on Fort Bragg, and after 20 years of hockey in Fayetteville, to be a small part of being able to be the first team to bring a professional hockey game to this arena is an absolute honor. So much credit for this becoming a reality belongs to the constant effort of all involved on base, at Cleland, and in our organization. It’s an honor to have our team forever associated with the proud history of Fort Bragg.”
The Marksmen, who also host Veterans Appreciation Night each season and whose jersey features sergeant stripes, have held training camp in Fort Bragg over the past few seasons, which helped spawn the idea of hosting an organized game on location. "The game kind of came together last training camp, my first one here," Marksmen coach Jesse Kallechy said. "I was talking with the building manager, and we kind of talked about how cool it would be to have a game out there. We weren’t even really aware that there hadn’t been a professional game played at a military base. So we started talking about it later in the year, and we said, 'Hey, why don’t we try to put this thing in motion?' "
Kallechy has been impressed with the reception the event has received. "Not only the support from obviously the people on the base, but even seeing fans, our season-ticket holders saying, “Wow, this is awesome. Even if I’m not able to go, I’m glad that the people who are on the base who can’t make it out to every game, they’re finally able to experience Marksmen hockey.' "
Choosing the opponent was a no-brainer for Fayetteville. The Marksmen met up with the Rail Yard Dawgs 12 times between October and January last season and will meet for another 11 regular-season contests in 2019-20. "When we put it together and we talked with Roanoke, they were really excited to be part of the event. I think it all just kind of came together and made sense to add another game between the two teams," Kallechy said.
The game will kick-off what is primed to be an exciting season for the Marksmen. The club last made it to the league semifinal in 2015-16 and haven't made it back to the final in over a decade. That could change this season, as a rebuilding, youthful roster now features a number of returnees. "On our 19-man playoff roster, we had 15 rookies," Kallechy said. "We were extremely young. This year we have a great core coming back, and realistically for us, we think, at least on paper, that we’re a team that can compete for a championship."
But first, it starts with the historic exhibition contest, an event the Marksmen hope can become an annual tradition.
"We’re really trying to – I don’t want to say give back – but for us to be able to host an event out there, with the community that we’re in, with so many active duty (soldiers) and veterans in our community, to be able to have a game out there that you know some people may not be able to come to in town here, we’re just glad to be able to host a game for our military personnel," Kallechy said.
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