The soil in Wythe County must be something special.
The folks there planted an idea and grew a hockey team.
The Blue Ridge Bobcats of the Federal Prospects Hockey League sprouted up from seed and were in … well, maybe not full bloom on Oct. 20, with their first official game in franchise history a 5-3 loss to the visiting Mississippi Sea Wolves.
But the inaugural game took place inside Wythe County’s Apex Center, a 90,000-square foot facility on 95 grassy acres overlooking Exit 77 of Interstate 81.
And that is a big victory.
In early summer it still had a dirt floor. Now a hockey rink covers the surface, and the ice won’t be going anywhere until the local team’s 56-game season ends in April.
Professional sports have returned to the county for the first time since 1989, when the Chicago Cubs pulled their Appalachian League Rookie baseball franchise out of Withers Field in downtown Wytheville.
Let that sink in.
There is a professional sports team in Wytheville.
Matt Hankins, Wythe County’s assistant administrator, was among the curious who stood rinkside on a squeaky-clean concrete floor waiting for the Bobcats to take the ice for the first time.
“It’s hard to believe that where we are standing, in May this was dirt,” he said.
* * *
Building a hockey franchise from the ground up is nothing new for Bobcats owner Barry Soskin.
The 66-year-old Illinois native has owned a number of teams in a variety of leagues and currently has a majority stake in at least four other FPHL teams — the Port Huron (Michigan) Prowlers, the Carolina Thunderbirds of Winston-Salem, the Baton Rouge Zydeco and the Bobcats’ opponent Friday, the Biloxi-based Sea Wolves.
Soskin also is the president of Apex Drive Holdings LLC, which operates separately from the hockey team and hopes to attract other forms of entertainment such as concerts to the Apex Center. He has a 10-year renewable, escalating lease from Wythe County, which has made a considerable investment in the upgrades to the facility.
The improvements included an intricate cooling system below the rink that was still being installed in late summer.
Would the facility be ready in time for the ballyhooed debut?
Soskin heard the skepticism, and it was louder than a whisper.
“So many people were saying the ice would never be done and we would be needing delays and delays and I go, ‘No, I talk to these guys, they got their act together,'” Soskin said.
An hour before the opener, Soskin resembled an expectant father, circling the interior of the arena, checking everything from locker rooms to popcorn machines.
He soon discovered a problem.
The two lines of spectators on either side of the arena were growing. That is normally good news, but gaining entrance to the building was taking too long. Soskin was not happy.
“Should there be a line that long?” he said. “I get it, but if I was in that line, I’m not waiting in that line.”
Soskin estimated that the team sold between 140 and 190 season tickets for 28 home games, short of his goal of between 250 and 350.
“Ticket-wise I really have to blame me, us, whatever. We did not get the final seating chart until Monday,” he said, imagining a conversation with a potential ticket buyer.
“I’d like to sell you a season ticket.”
“Great, where do I sit?”
“How the hell do I know?”
“Well, let me see a seating chart.”
“No! We didn’t have anything approved yet.”
The game began 15 minutes later than the scheduled 7:30 p.m. puck drop. Spectators were still filing into the arena. Soskin reported an opening-night attendance of 1,271.
The owner did not try to deflect any blame.
“The stuff, honestly I’m not really happy about, is our end,” he said. “I think we can do a better job. I take the heat. I think we can get better by the next [homestand]. Simple things, but when you don’t do them it makes the fan experience different, and I want the fan experience to be awesome.”
* * *
Dustin and Suzie Booth bought full season tickets when they heard about minor-league hockey coming to Southwest Virginia.
Three years ago, the couple moved to Wythe County from Denver, where hockey was their favorite sport.
Sporting replica team jerseys given to season-ticket holders, the Booths are “all-in” as Bobcats fans.
“We’ve committed,” Dustin Booth said. “We’re very excited to have any kind of sport here, but hockey’s even better. We’ve been anticipating this since it was announced, hoping that it wasn’t going to disappear before it got started.”
While Denver has a pro franchise in all four major sports, Suzie Booth prefers watching players at the lower levels.
“We specifically love minor-league sports,” she said. “Everybody’s out supporting the big guys. In Denver, when we first lived there, there was a minor-league hockey team called the Denver Cutthroats. We had the most fun at those games. It’s not as uptight as a [major-league] game.”
The Booths were tailgating with friends in the parking lot before the season opener.
Without hockey, what would they being doing on a normal Friday night?
“We don’t have any kids,” Dustin Booth said. “We met a lot of our friends in town at Seven Sisters Brewery so we’d probably be there.”
Suzie Booth said she and her husband had only been inside the Apex Center once prior to Friday.
“We bought a hot tub,” she said.
“I never thought it would be a hockey arena,” Dustin Booth said.
Rodney Necaise made a trip to Wythe County in the spring to take a look at viability of the Apex Center for hockey.
He must have been convinced at some point, because Necaise bought airline tickets for himself; his wife, Anna; and their two children, Jessica and Dean, to fly from southern Mississippi to Southwest Virginia for the two-game series between the Sea Wolves and Bobcats.
“It’s amazing what they were able to do,” Necaise said. “I didn’t think they were going to make it. From what I’ve seen, it’s a good arena. There’s still some work. But just getting hockey in and getting the money flowing is going to help with that, I’m sure.”
The Biloxi franchise plays in a 9,150-seat arena. The club formerly was in the East Coast Hockey League, where it won the Kelly Cup in 1999. The team folded amid the COVID-19 pandemic but returned last season as an FPHL entry.
Necaise has some pull with the Mississippi team. He is the co-owner of a Biloxi business, Omni Technologies, which has its advertising logo on the Sea Wolves’ uniforms.
Standing outside the visitors’ locker room before the game in the shadow of the team buses, he was impressed by the local show of support.
“I’ll give props to the Bobcats,” he said. “I’ve been watching some of the fans walking around in their jerseys, hats, all that stuff. They’re decked out, ready to go.”
Randy Irvin had never seen a hockey game before the Bobcats clashed with the Sea Wolves.
The former Rural Retreat football player was enjoying the physical nature of the event.
“I came tonight knowing zero. I like it a lot, I really do,” Irvin said. “The speed is amazing.”
Irvin left the arena with positive vibes.
“As a fan, what I’m most happy about is they’re actually doing something with this place,” he said. “Looking around, I think it’s going to do well.”
* * *
Sherri Oakes had her eye on one particular Bobcat on the ice.
Her son, Cody Oakes, sported No. 19 on his black and blue jersey.
She and Cody moved from Colorado, where he played hockey at Cherry Hill High School, to Winston-Salem when he joined the SPHL franchise in North Carolina in 2018. She made the short drive up Interstate 77 to Wythe County for the season opener.
“It’s awesome, I’m so excited,” she said. “I’m sorry. I can get loud sometimes.”
Mom celebrated when son scored a goal with 4 minutes, 28 seconds to play that cut what had been a 4-0 Mississippi lead to 4-3.
“It was good to get the monkey off the back,” said Cody Oakes, 26, who is playing for his fifth minor-league franchise in six years and is still at the Single-A level.
Oakes said he is paid $225 per week. He and 20 other players live in a Wytheville retirement home that has been converted into a hockey dormitory. Players look for ways to supplement their salary with part-time work around games, practice and long bus rides.
“During the summer you’ll have to work a little bit, but if you’re real frugal with money you can make it work,” he said. “We’re doing it more because we still love the game. We love the atmosphere. We’re rolling with it. They’ve accepted us with open arms here.
“It’s nice, because it actually feels like a home to me. I’m enjoying it a lot.”
* * *
One man inside the Apex Center did not enjoy the game for most of the evening.
Bobcats coach Vojtech “Zemmy” Zemlicka wore a dark suit that matched his dark mood after the loss.
“I wasn’t very much impressed,” Zemlicka said. “We haven’t done anything we were talking about. The compete level wasn’t there. It wasn’t the way we wanted to present ourselves.
“Every day you have to get better in your job. Winning is fun but winning takes hard work and doing all the little things, and at the end of the day, being a physical team. We have a mix of Europeans and North Americans, and we just played afraid for about 45 out of 60 minutes. That’s why the outcome is the way that it is.”
The team had a two-week training camp where the roster was cut from 45 to 23 players. The squad would later be trimmed to 19.
Oakes said the team will respond positively to Zemlicka, a native of Poland who is a former player and assistant coach with the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs, who also opened their 2023-24 season Oct. 20. The Bobcats lost 4-3 in overtime the next night in their second game against Mississippi.
“He has us on a tight leash. Honestly, he’s been nothing but amazing so far,” Oakes said. “If he wanted to put on the skates and come out full gear, he’d probably still be the best on our team.”
Zemlicka’s counterpart, Sea Wolves coach Joe “The Show” Pace, did suit up. Pace and several assistants are player coaches. Pace scored Mississippi’s third goal of the game in the second period.
Mississippi’s Philip Wong will forever have the honor of scoring the first goal in the Apex Center.
Brice French, a 23-year-old rookie from Fairbanks, Alaska, scored the first goal for the Bobcats with 14:34 left in the game, followed by Massachusetts native Kyle Stevens and Oakes.
A few skirmishes on the ice developed into fights, but they were tame by hockey standards as the officials were quick to restore order.
The 11-team FPHL is one big traveling fraternity.
“It gets wild out there at times, but for the most part we’re friends,” Oakes said. “We all know each other.”
* * *
The Bobcats dropped a 4-3 decision to Mississippi the next night before embarking on a 511-mile trip to the Detroit suburbs to face the Motor City Rockers.
It was a history-making bus ride as the Bobcats earned their first victory in franchise history on Oct. 27 with a 5-4 overtime victory. Two third-period goals by Vladisov Vlasov sent the game to overtime, where the Bobcats prevailed 2-0 in a shootout on goals by Jakub Volf and Josh Newberg.
The Bobcats dropped a 4-3 decision to Motor City on Saturday.
The Wythe County team is in the FPHL’s Empire Division, named for good reason because three of the teams are located in New York — the Binghamton Black Bears, the Elmira River Sharks and the Watertown Wolves. The other Empire team is the Danbury (Connecticut) Hat Tricks.
The six teams in the Continental Division are the Sea Wolves, the Thunderbirds, the Rockers, the Zydeco, the Port Huron (Michigan) Prowlers and the Columbus (Georgia) River Dragons. The Bobcats will make the 835-mile trip to Baton Rouge for a two-game series Dec. 8-9. Biloxi is a 748-mile ride.
Most of the trips are two-game series. Almost all the games are played on Fridays and Saturdays with a handful of Wednesday and Sunday games.
The Bobcats return home Nov. 3 against Carolina.
Soskin has some short-term and long-term improvements in mind.
Current seating in the facility includes fixed chair-back seats mounted on large risers on both sides of the arena along with several small sections of aluminum bleachers behind one end of the rink.
By next year, Soskin said he wants to install chair-back seats that go from the back of the concrete concourse down to the hockey boards with a total capacity between 3,700 and 4,000.
“Let’s build some more stands,” he said. “A work in progress.”
Soskin said the financial support from local advertisers has been “better than I thought for the first year.”
The owner might be sweating some of the small stuff, but he said the big picture in Wytheville looks promising.
“I have a team in Baton Rouge. I have a team in Biloxi,” Soskin said. “The budgets are well over a million bucks. My budget is not that high here. In Biloxi where I have to take in half a million in corporate and we have to have 3 [thousand], 3,500 [attendance], here I don’t have to do anywhere those numbers to maintain from a hockey standpoint.
“Remember, I also own the building. I also have an event business where we need to put on concerts, shows, tractor pulls … whatever to make this building successful. Nobody used this building. My job is to make a lot of people use this building.”
Soskin unequivocally pledged that hockey will return to Wytheville in 2024 and beyond.
“We’ll be back,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s going to happen, good, bad or indifferent that’s going to change what we’re doing for the next five or six years.
“I’m not an idiot. If I’m throwing money into a money pit, five, six years later and I still don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, why should I keep spending my kids’ inheritance?”
And Cody Oakes?
How long will he make 800-mile bus rides to keep pounding the boards, taking and dishing out forechecks for paychecks of $225 per week?
“At least until the wheels fall off,” he said.
The Blue Ridge Bobcats’ schedule
For more information and ticket sales, visit www.blueridgebobcats.com.
20: Mississippi 5, Bobcats 3
21: Mississippi 4, Bobcats 3, OT
27: Bobcats 5, Motor City 4, OT
28: Motor City 4, Bobcats 3
3: vs. Carolina
4: at Carolina
10: vs. Mississippi
11: vs. Mississippi
17: at Carolina
18: vs. Carolina
24: at Baton Rouge
25: at Baton Rouge
1: vs. Columbus
2: vs. Columbus
8: at Baton Rouge
9: at Baton Rouge
15: at Baton Rouge
16: at Columbus
22: vs. Carolina
5: at Columbus
6: at Columbus
7: at Mississippi
11: at Carolina
12: vs. Motor City
13: vs. Motor City
19: vs. Columbus
20: vs. Columbus
26: at Motor City
27: at Motor City
28: at Motor City
2: vs. Baton Rouge
3: vs. Baton Rouge
4: vs. Baton Rouge
10: vs. Carolina
14: at Carolina
16: at Elmira
17: at Elmira
23: vs. Mississippi
24: vs. Baton Rouge
25: vs. Baton Rouge
1: at Motor City
2: at Motor City
8: at Port Huron
9: at Port Huron
10: at Motor City
15: vs. Carolina
16: vs. Carolina
20: vs. Carolina
22: vs. Danbury
23: vs. Danbury
29: at Carolina
30: vs. Carolina
5: at Columbus
6: at Columbus
12: vs. Watertown
13: vs. Watertown