PENSACOLA, Fla. – Little Current’s Mike Laidley began his first professional hockey season this past December, trading the beaches of Manitoulin for the northern Florida coast as a left winger for the Pensacola Ice Flyers in the teams’ 2020-2021 season.
“It’s definitely a little different from what I was used to in college; pro is a whole different world,” 25-year-old Mr. Laidley told The Expositor in early January. “It’s been great so far and super exciting. Hopefully I can keep it going and stick it out for the entire year.”
The unpredictable nature of 2020 and the global pandemic made the process far from certain. He signed an agreement to try out for the Florida team in August at a time when organizers were still unsure of whether they would be able to have a season.
He finally got training camp details in November and left the Island for the sunshine state on December 18, 2020. Mr. Laidley required negative COVID-19 tests both before he left and when he reached camp, and must complete weekly testing during the season.
“(Florida is) not the first place I thought I’d be playing hockey, for sure; it’s a little different to go to the rink in flip flops and shorts right now,” said Mr. Laidley with a laugh.
The Southern Professional Hockey League saw major changes this year, dropping from 10 teams to five in the states of Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. Games are scheduled to avoid having any overnight stays wherever possible, to keep the teams out of hotels and other public places where they may risk exposure.
Because of the team capacity cut, the competition has been fiercer than ever. Some of the top players on shut-down teams have found spaces among the remaining five, including some players on the Ice Flyers.
“In the East Coast Hockey League, which is in the tier above us, only a handful of teams are playing there right now. We have some guys too who got called up to that league last year … but this year their teams have folded so they came back to the league here,” he said.
One measure the league has not taken, however, is banning spectators. Although the capacity is down from the roughly 8,000 seats at home-ice hockey games, some fans are still allowed to cheer on the players in person.
The league has cancelled all fan-player interactions such as signings and meet-and-greets to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Prior to his Floridian move, Mr. Laidley was in his fifth year at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, in a master’s program, where he also played for the school’s hockey team. The university sent students home in March and Mr. Laidley was back on Manitoulin through the spring and summer while he planned for his next steps.
He was in contact with the Toledo Walleye, a team part of the East Coast Hockey League in the tier above the Ice Flyers’ league, with a tentative offer to attend their training camp. However, the start date moved backward several times and he had to pass. Last week, that team cancelled its entire season.
Mr. Laidley was also exploring options of playing professionally in Scandinavia before he decided to focus on eastern US teams.
“I’m just trying to focus on my game right now with where I’m at, try to improve each and every day, and hopefully get a shot to move up when the time comes,” he said, adding that while his dream remains breaking into the NHL, he is satisfied as long as he can keep developing and being an effective team member.
Ice Flyers coach Rod Aldoff said Mr. Laidley is a good example of a professional player.
“He comes to the arena everyday prepared to work and do what it takes to be successful. He’s well respected by his teammates and is great human being. I’ve played him at center (and) wing and he understands the game and positioning well. He’s been a joy to coach and I look for him to keep getting better each and every day,” the coach told The Expositor.
Mr. Laidley has played a handful of games with the Ice Flyers so far. While goals and assists eluded him for the first few games as he got used to playing again, he said he was determined to keep putting his best skate forward through this season.
“Each game I’m getting better and there’s more confidence there,” he said. “I’ve been waiting a long time; it’s been a long summer of training and skating back home getting ready and I’m super excited to be back into it.”
The Pensacola Ice Flyers are ranked first in the league as of press time Monday, after playing six games. The season will be 42 games long, down from the regular 56.
He credited his skills as a strong, fast skater as assets to his power forward role in both defensive and offensive action. Growing his offense skills and stickhandling are his goals to make sure he is ready for the next professional tier.
He has good company on the team alongside a handful of Canadians. One player from Oakville has a mutual friend with Mr. Laidley; the two teammates formerly played each other when they were both in school 10 minutes apart in upstate New York.
“They’re great guys and easy to get along with, which made it easier to transition,” Mr. Laidley said.
He expressed gratitude to the many fans back home who have been reaching out to offer messages of support and well-wishes for a successful pro career.