History of the Greenville Swamp Rabbits
The Greenville Swamp Rabbits are a professional ice hockey team located in Greenville, South Carolina. They play in the South Division of the ECHL‘s Eastern Conference and play their home games at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in downtown Greenville.
The franchise previously played as the Johnstown Chiefs from 1987 until the team’s relocation in 2010, and subsequently as the Greenville Road Warriors until being re-branded as the Swamp Rabbits in 2015. The Swamp Rabbits are the second ECHL franchise to play in Greenville, as the city hosted the Greenville Grrrowl from 1998 until 2006.
The franchise was founded as the Johnstown Chiefs prior to the 1987–88 All-American Hockey League season. The next season, the franchise became one of the founding members of the East Coast Hockey League, which would be rebranded as the ECHL in 2003. The Chiefs floundered for several years as the owners of the team tried to find new local ownership, but failed. After losing a reported $100,000 per year and facing an expensive rent posted by the Cambria County War Memorial Arena’s new owners, the Chiefs began taking offers to relocate the team.
In February 2010, WYFF 4 reported that the Johnstown Chiefs announced plans to relocate from Johnstown, Pennsylvania to Greenville, South Carolina to compete at the BI-LO Center, beginning a five-year lease with the building. On February 17, 2010, the ECHL announced that the Chiefs would officially be relocating following a unanimous vote by the league’s Board of Governors. The Chiefs played their final game in Johnstown on Saturday April 3, 2010, ending the franchise’s 22-year stint in Pennsylvania.
Johnstown’s minority owner Ned Nakles addressed the fans prior to the game, stating that the Chiefs name, logo, team records and history would not follow the franchise to Greenville, but would remain in Johnstown should a new team enter the ECHL in the city. The team relocated and rebranded as the Greenville Road Warriors ahead of the 2010-11 regular season.
The Greenville Road Warriors organization was unveiled on June 25, 2010 after fans chose from more than 5,000 possible team names. Cincinnati Cyclones assistant coach Dean Stork was named the team’s first head coach on June 29. In August 2010, the franchise signed affiliation agreements with the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers ahead of the inaugural season. The Flyers transferred its affiliation to Trenton from 2011 to 2013 before reuniting with Greenville, again for one season in 2013-14.
The Greenville Road Warriors’ inaugural season was very successful. Led by their rookie head coach, the Road Warriors had a deep attack and boasted nine players with at least 40 points during the regular season. That offense combined with a defense that gave up the second-fewest goals in the league (192) paved the way to a 46-22-4 record, a South Division title, and the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the 2011 Kelly Cup playoffs. Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Nic Riopel guided the team in net, setting the franchise record with 24 wins. The Road Warriors became just the second first-year team in the history of the ECHL to win a regular season conference crown.
Top-seeded Greenville advanced through the first round of the playoffs, besting the eighth-seeded Elmira Jackals 3-1 in a best-of-5 series. A second round battle against the Wheeling Nailers used every game of their best-of-7 series. The Nailers went up 3–1 in the series after a split in Greenville and wins in games three and four in Wheeling. Greenville responded by winning game five, 5–1 and game six, 6–3 to force the a decisive game seven at the BI-LO Center. The Road Warriors forced overtime in the game, but the comeback fell short, ending Greenville’s inaugural season.
The Road Warriors finished second in the ECHL’s South Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference, with a 41-25-6 record. Justin Bowers set the franchise record and finished third in the league with 78 points (19G, 59A) and was second with 59 assists. Brandon Wong set another franchise record in 2011-12, netting 31 goals as he and Marc-Olivier Vallerand each finished in the top-ten in the ECHL. That season Vallerand became the first Road Warrior selected to an ECHL All-Star Game. On the defensive side, rookie goalie, and New York Rangers prospect, Jason Missiaen turned in 40 appearances during the regular season. The team came short in the first round against the red-hot Florida Everblades and fell 3-0 in the best of five series. Florida went on to win the 2011 Kelly Cup Championship.
During the 2012 playoffs, the Road Warriors’ owners, Neil Smith and Steve Posner, sold the franchise to Fred Festa.
The 2012–13 season was one of many milestones for the Road Warriors, both individual and as a team. It began with head coach Dean Stork getting his 100th victory behind the Greenville bench on November 30, 2012. Captain T.J. Reynolds played in his 600th professional game on February 18 against the Wheeling Nailers. Greenville also achieved a franchise record on March 17 against the Kalamazoo Wings, tallying nine goals in a 9-2 victory at the Wings Event Center despite dressing only 14 skaters.
After going 26-14-4 in the first half of the season the team struggled during the second half and went 10-13-4. Greenville fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but clinched the eighth playoff seed with 80 points in the regular season.
The Road Warriors opponent in the best-of-seven series, the Reading Royals, won the series 4-1. Once again, the Road Warriors fell to the eventual Kelly Cup Champions as Reading earned its first championship.
The 2013-14 season resulted in the Road Warriors reaching the Eastern Conference Final for the first time. The team climbed out of one of its worst starts in history, peaking over a .500 winning percentage in the middle of January. Greenville turned in a 24-13-0-3 finish over the final 40 games to clinch the sixth playoff seed with a 39-27-2-4 record.
2014 Kelly Cup Playoffs
In the first round, the Road Warriors drew the Kalamazoo Wings and split the series 2-2 heading into a crucial game five. Triple overtime was needed to decide the game, extending to the longest contest in franchise history. Kyle Jean, who tied the game in the final five minutes of the third period, potted the winner four minutes into the final overtime to earn a 4-3 win. Jeff Malcolm produced Greenville’s the highest save total in a single game, stopping 53 shots in the contest. Earlier that season the reigning NCAA National Champion from Yale University set the team’s regular season record with 52 saves against the South Carolina Stingrays.
The Wheeling Nailers met the Road Warriors in the Eastern Conference Semifinal as the visiting team took each of the first four contests. Greenville powered back at home for Game 5, tallying four unanswered goals in the third period in route to a 4-1 victory. The Road Warriors capped off the series three nights later as Missiaen earned a 31-save shutout at Wes Banco Arena.
Greenville advanced to the Eastern Conference Final to face the Cincinnati Cyclones. After a split of the first two games, three of the remaining four contests would be decided in overtime and all four contests were decided by one goal. Greenville’s tremendous turnaround season would come to an end as the Cyclones took the series 4-2, ending the Road Warriors hopes at a championship.
Greenville entered the 2014-15 season in the newly founded East Division and a quest for a fifth straight playoff appearance. Unlike the previous season, the team charged out to a first half record of 22-13-0-1 record for second place in the division. However, a second half spiral pushed the team out of contention for the first time in the team’s existence. Greenville ended the regular season in fifth place, just two points behind the Orlando Solar Bears.
The hallmark of the season was Vinny Saponari, who paced the team with 69 points, third most by a Greenville skater in franchise history. He ended the year tied for fifth in the league with 51 assists. Emerson Clark also set a single-season franchise record, logging 217 PIMS. In addition, Malcolm was chosen to represent the Road Warriors between the pipes at the 2015 ECHL All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida. April 11th, 2015 would be the final game in Greenville for Missiaen, who ended his time four season career in the Upstate with a 58-35-0-7 record. Missiaen’s 5-1 victory against the Gladiators that night set the clubs all-time win record by a single goaltender.
On April 15th, 2015, the Road Warriors agreed to part ways with Head Coach Dean Stork. After five years in Greenville, Stork had coached the club to a 201-131-28 record and a 17-16-4 postseason record over four playoff appearances. Assistant Coach Brian Gratz took over as Director of Hockey Operations in the interim. Gratz was later announced as Greenville’s second head coach in franchise history on July 7th, 2015.
In the summer of 2015, the Greenville Road Warriors prepared for a major organizational change with the help of California-based designing firm Brandiose. On August 26th, 2015, the team officially announced that it had rebranded to the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. The team was renamed to the Swamp Rabbits to strengthen the team’s ties to Greenville and pay homage to the historical legacy of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, or Greenville and Northern Railway. Near the railway in downtown Greenville, the well-known “Swamp Rabbit” pedestrian bridge crossing over the Reedy River served as a connection to the community. In 2005, planning began for the railway to be converted into the multi-use trail and was officially opened as the Swamp Rabbit Trail in 2010.
“After much thought and consideration, we determined that we wanted our new identity to honor a piece of Greenville’s history while also being relevant within the community today,” said Owner Fred Festa after the rebrand. The organization came to the conclusion that the Swamp Rabbit name holds dear to a variety of residents, businesses, popular recreational areas, and the historic landmark dating back to the 1920’s. The rebrand also targeted the competitive spirt of the players and the vibrancy in the community both on and off the ice, according to General Manager Chris Lewis. The constant message by the organization was to not be just a hockey team in Greenville, but be Greenville’s hockey team.
Greenville began the year by winning three of the first five games, but would drop below .500 during a six-game slide. Greenville spent a majority of the season fighting to get back into playoff contention. Even down to the final month of the regular season, the Swamp Rabbits were just five points outside of the Kelly Cup Playoff picture. Despite the push, Greenville came up short and finished with fewer than 35 wins for the first time, ending the season with a 29-33-9-1 record.
The Swamp Rabbits call-up rate was the highest in franchise history as Greenville saw 18 different skaters earn promotions to the AHL a total of 38 times. Players appeared in 286 games in the AHL spanning nine different teams. Players also reached personal highs as Garett Bembridge played his 900th pro game on February 21, Captain Bretton Cameron skated in his 300th pro game on October 25th, and leading scorer Jack Combs tallied his 400th pro point on December 11 against Orlando.
The New York Rangers extended their affiliation with Greenville during the offseason. The partnership across the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack spans through the 2017-18 season.
Embarking on the second season as the Swamp Rabbits, coach Gratz acquired new pieces to the roster as only nine skaters from the previous season returned to the team. Leading the charge on offense was Angelo Miceli who recorded the second highest point total in franchise history. His 77 points were just one shy of the club record and his 55 assists also ranked second in team history. The second year forward ended the year fourth in the ECHL for assists and among the top-10 point producers. Six players reached 40 points during the season, the best offensive output since the inaugural season. Greenville launched into playoff contention with a 40-26-5-1 record, achieving 40 wins for just the fourth time in franchise history.
Captain Bretton Cameron broke the franchise record for games played on December 13th, 2016, playing in his 263rd game with Greenville. Cameron totaled 304 games in a Greenville uniform and 414 career games played at the end of the season. The 5-foot-11 forward enjoyed the best point production of his career as well, earning 44 points (20G, 24A) in 64 games. The single season output was the best by a Greenville captain in franchise history. Michael Joly also set a franchise mark, recording four goals in one game against the Wichita Thunder on March 7, 2017.
Greenville powered into playoff contention during the second half of the season, rolling to a 22-12-2-0 record and securing the second place seed in the South Division. On March 10th, 2017 against the Florida Everblades, the Swamp Rabbits shattered their single game attendance record, welcoming 8,742 patrons into the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.
The Swamp Rabbits return to the playoffs sparked an instate rivalry. After playing 14 games against the South Carolina Stingrays during the regular season, the clubs would meet in the South Division Semifinal. It was the first time in franchise history that the in state rivals would meet in the playoffs. Greenville took hold of home ice advantage, taking a 2-0 series lead and outscoring the Stingrays 10-4 in two contests. In North Charleston the series shifted as one of the top defensive teams in the ECHL equalized the series at home. Game 5 in Greenville would end at a close 4-2 decision with the deciding game going to North Charleston. The Stingrays would take the game and the series in route to advancing to the Kelly Cup Final, eventually falling to the Colorado Eagles in four games.
Greenville had previously been home to the Greenville Grrrowl, who played in the ECHL from 1998 to 2006. The franchise, coached by former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman John Marks, qualified for the Kelly Cup Playoffs four times out of eight seasons and captured the 2002 Kelly Cup Championship. The Grrrowl were affiliated with the Blackhawks as well as the Edmonton Oilers. The franchise ceased operations in June of 2006 due to lost revenue and the inability to find new investors.
Colin Pepperall holds the franchise record with 251 points (101G, 150A) and also has played more games in Greenville, SC than any other player with 319 contests for the Grrrowl. Former Greenville captain Ryan Stewart is currently serving as the Director of Pro Scouting for the Blackhawks, joining the franchise in 2006. Stewart also won the ECHL’s Man of the Year Award during the Grrrowl’s championship season. The Grrrowl would advance 19 players to the NHL including forward Alex Burrows, who has logged over 800 games with the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators.