Fort Bragg set to host first pro hockey game on active military base this weekend

The SPHL’s Fayetteville Marksmen will play the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs in a preseason game Saturday at Cleland Ice Rink

The Fayetteville Marksmen will host the first professional hockey game to be played on a military base in the United States when they play Roanoke Rail Yard Dogs in a Southern Professional Hockey League preseason game on Saturday at Cleland Ice Rink on Fort Bragg. (Photo courtesy of Fayetteville Marksmen)

Chuck Norris — no, not that Chuck Norris — has fond memories of playing hockey at Fort Bragg’s Cleland Ice Rink when he was a soldier stationed at the Fayetteville Army base.

He’ll have a chance Saturday to relive the experience, or at least something similar to it, with some of those still in uniform.

Norris won’t be playing this time, but the minor league team he owns will.

When the Fayetteville Marksmen take on the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs in a Southern Professional Hockey League preseason game, it will mark the first time a professional hockey game has ever been played on an active military installation.

It’s an event similar to the one Major League Baseball staged between the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins on the base in 2016. But that wasn’t the motivation that inspired Norris and his team to schedule a game of their own.

“For me personally, just to have a small part of it is really an honor,” said Norris, a Charlotte businessman who has owned the Marksmen since 2017. “I was surprised to hear they had never had an actual game out there prior to this. It’s just a thrill, really. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Fort Bragg is one of only three military bases in the country that has an ice rink.

Its proximity to Fayetteville has allowed the Marksmen — and the city’s two previous teams, the Force and the FireAntz — to hold training camp and practices there on occasion when the Crown Coliseum hasn’t been available.

The idea for the game came about last preseason when the team was forced to work out at Cleland while renovations to its home rink were being completed. It began with a conversation between Marksmen coach Jesse Kallechy and rink manager A.J. Guimont

“Last fall, (Kallechy) and I were talking about how cool it would be to have a game at Cleland,” Guimont said in a release issued by the team. “When Mr. Norris got involved, the ball started rolling. After getting the thumbs-up from the (Morale, Recreation and Welfare) director Raymond Lacey and garrison commander Col. (Phillip D.) Sounia, we could start preparing for the event.”

Surprisingly, Norris said that very little red tape was involved in getting approval for Saturday’s game.

“A.J. did all the heavy lifting,” Norris said. “He’s an absolute stud. For us, it wasn’t too bad. A.J. works for MWR and they were able to make it happen. All the credit to those guys, man. They did an unbelievable job.”

The game will be played at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $10 each and while they aren’t limited to members of the military and their families — as the baseball game was — they are only available on base at Fort Bragg’s Leisure Travel Service.

To say that it’s a hot ticket would be an understatement. Because of Cleland’s small seating capacity, only 500 will be sold. While that might not sound like a lot of people, their proximity to the ice and the acoustics of the rink promise to make for a lot of noise during the game.

“I think it’s going to be a heck of a raucous atmosphere,” said Shawn Bednard, the Marksmen’s broadcaster and community relations director. “You get 50 people in there and everyone’s on top of you, so you can imagine what it will sound like when 500 people are there cheering.”

Bednard said that food trucks and a beer wagon will be available outside the arena to handle concessions.

The Marksmen, who finished 25-23-8 in the eight-team SPHL last season, are scheduled to begin their 2019-20 season on Friday, Oct. 18 at Macon with their home opener the following night against the Knoxville Ice Bears.

While playing on Fort Bragg could help the Marksmen increase their profile on the base and perhaps win over some new fans there — something Fayetteville sports teams have always had trouble doing — Norris said that’s not why the game was scheduled.

“For us, the exposure and branding out there on Fort Bragg is certainly attractive to us and it makes us more inclined to do it,” he said. “But for me, it’s something more personal with Fort Bragg. For us, it’s kind of giving back a little bit to those guys who do so much for us.”