The Pandemic caused all sorts of bad things to happen to hockey schedules over the past 12 months. From cancelled seasons to shortened seasons and crummy things too random to list each one. But among all the let downs and disappointments was a lot of happiness over the past weekend as the Pensacola Ice Flyers won the Presidents Cup in the SPHL championship.
One dominant member of that team, Eddie Matsushima is a Verona, Wisconsin native that had a long road to Florida. After being Captain of his Verona Wildcats High School team, he joined the Coulee Region Chill in the NAHL. He eventually earned the role of Captain on that team. In 2015 he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls to play four years of Division III hockey. Again, he earned the role of Captain for the UWRF Falcons. When he graduated from college, his hockey career took him to Pensacola, Florida when he joined the Ice Flyers in the SPHL and serves as their Assistant Captain. To date, Matsushima has been a Captain on every one of his teams.
Not even a year later the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL picked up Matsushima. His speed, creativity and high hockey IQ got him noticed and he played well. He was loaned to the Maine Mariners, who also play in the ECHL. Weeks later he was loaned to another ECHL team, the Worcester Railers. Teams could tell Matsushima had a lot to offer both on and off the ice. Just as things were going really well the Covid-19 pandemic screwed a lot of things up in the hockey world.
The Worcester Railers ended up suspending their entire season on November 18, 2020. Like so many other players, Matsushima returned home to see what would happen next and to think about how to salvage his hockey career that he had worked so hard to accomplish. He elected to help coach his former Verona Wildcats High School hockey team and was also a private coach for kids in the area.
Then he got a call just before Christmas that would put him back on the path to playing hockey that he loved so much. His old team, the Pensacola Ice Flyers would be part of a shortened season in the Southern Professional Hockey League with half the teams and 14 less games, but they were committed to play. Team owner Greg Harris was confident the return to play would happen after Christmas, on Dec. 26, when the SPHL's five available teams were set to begin a 42-game schedule.
"This decision among our league was not made lightly," said Harris, following the official announcement by the SPHL on having the 2020-21 season. There were still several things that needed to be figured out but the decision was made to carry on with hockey in Pensacola. So, Matsushima packed his bags and headed to Florida to play hockey again.
Opening Night for the Ice Flyers would be December 30th. Joining Matsushima were fellow UWRF Falcons alumni Alec Hagaman and Christian Hausinger. The team also had some serious goaltending with former Wisconsin Badger goalie Jack Berry and Waukesha, Wisconsin goalie standout Jake Kupsky as the starting goalie for the Ice Flyers.
Fast forward to the SPHL championships, the Ice Flyers were scheduled to play the Macon (GA.) Mayhem. Matsushima’s ECHL team called him and wanted him to return to their squad. Matsushima explained he didn’t want to bail on his Ice Flyers teammates, especially after the opportunity they gave him. In addition, he couldn’t leave his brothers while they battled for a league championship. His ECHL team agreed to let Matsushima finish the season with the Ice Flyers and he would rejoin his ECHL team in the fall.
Everything the Ice Flyers had worked so hard for were coming together. The team was peaking at the right time and they found themselves playing for the President’s Cup in the SPHL Championships. First up was a series against the Knoxville Ice Bears.
Starting goalie Jake Kupsky said, "I think our success came from being battle tested all year and having to work for every win. Nothing came easy and I think that gave us that much more confidence coming into the playoffs."
Kupsky was ready for the battles. "I just looked at it as another game. I'm the type where I like to prepare the same way every game, it doesn't matter who we are playing or what is on the line," Kupsky said.
Matsushima’s team started strong and won game 1 by the score of 5-2. Matsushima had 2 goals and an assist. Game 2 started slow as the Ice Flyers found themselves down one goal after the first period. Matsushima assisted on the next goal that would tie things up. However, they Ice Flyers were down 2-1 after two periods. The third period saw the boys from Florida explode for three unanswered goals and they defeated the Ice Bears 4-2. By winning both games they would go on to play the Macon Mayhem to determine the outright winner of the Presidents Cup.
Alec Hagaman was determined to take control of his teams’ destiny. He put his team up 1-0 after the first period. After the Mayhem tied the score at 1-1 in the second period Hagaman scored again to make it 2-1. The Mayhem again tied the score knotting things up at 2-2 at the end of the second. In the final period the Ice Flyers dug deep and pounded out two goal for the 4-2 win.
On May 15th the Ice Flyers faced off against the Mayhem in a big game two. After battling to a scoreless first period, the second period saw the Ice Flyers get on the scoreboard first at eight minutes into the period. Not even two minutes later Matsushima pushed the lead to 2-0. Five minutes later the Florida squad had a 3-0 lead. A little over six minutes into the third period the Mayhem finally got the puck past Kupsky to make it a 3-1 game. But it was not enough. With two seconds left the Ice Flyers popped in one more goal on the empty net to take the 4-1 win sweeping the Macon Mayhem and winning their fourth President’s Cup.
Alec Hagaman had three goals and two assists. He ended up earning the 2021 SPHL Playoffs Most Valuable Player Award. Matsushima also ended up with three goals and two assists in the four games. Two of those goals were game winners.
When asked what it was like winning with this team, Kupsky said, ‘it meant the world to me to win a championship with the guys we had in that room. Such a good and tight-knit group. Super special feeling!”
Matsushima echoed similar sentiments, "Words can't describe how amazing it was as the clock was ticking down in the final seconds of that game. To win with our team in such an odd year was really something special and something I’ll never forget. Our team, the guys in the room were so close on and off the ice and in the end, it showed that everyone was willing to do whatever it took to win. Our team had its ups and downs throughout the year, but everyone bought in, we had our end goal in mind and regardless of highs and lows we kept working towards winning the Presidents cup. "
Congrats to the Pensacola Ice Flyers for winning the 2021 Presidents Cup.