BILOXI, Miss. (AP) – Life on the beach is only getting harder for one of the last ice hockey teams left on the Gulf Coast.

The Mississippi Sea Wolves survived Hurricane Katrina and have defied a trend of fellow ECHL teams disbanding all across the deep South.

Now the recession is testing the resolve of team owners to keep the club skating in a repaired arena that stands along the white sands of Biloxi’s scarred beach front.

“It’s a love of the sport. I know it is,” said Sea Wolves investor Terry Stoskopf, owner of a truck dealership about 80 miles west in New Orleans. “It has to be, because I have dipped deep this year – personally – to keep this thing going.”

The club’s recent history is a tale of commitment, loyalty and resilience. And yet the question looms: How much longer can it endure?

Stoskopf, a major team sponsor before the storm, joined the ownership group afterward. In doing so he ignored the advice of friends, including former pro hockey players, who warned him that pouring money into minor league hockey here would be foolhardy.

The widespread perception that the novelty of hockey in the South had worn off was only one reason.

The Mississippi Coast Coliseum took in about 10 feet of water when Katrina swept ashore just ahead of the 2005 season. Fans can still judge the height of the water by the first few rows of newer gray seats. Much rebuilding has taken place in the area, but ruins remain, such as staircases to nowhere on overgrown beach-front lots and the remnants of a leveled hotel next to the arena.

Visiting teams used to stay at the hotel, which was destroyed when Katrina tossed a casino barge into it. Only a pockmarked concrete slab surrounded by orange plastic fencing remains.

The Sea Wolves had to suspend operations for two seasons before finally getting back on the ice for the 2007-08 campaign. By then, many other ECHL teams in the South had folded. Last season, the Sea Wolves and Pensacola Ice Pilots were the only teams remaining out of nine that once played along a stretch of Interstate 10 running from east Texas to the east coast of Florida.

There had once been teams in Beaumont, Texas; Lafayette, La.; Baton Rouge, La.; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Jacksonville, Fla.

“People called us the I-10 league,” Sea Wolves coach Steffon Walby said, smiling at the memory of better times.

Numerous clubs sprouted up during minor league hockey’s rapid expansion in the South during the mid-to-late 1990s. Most were gone by 2004.

Then last summer Pensacola went under, and the only ECHL team left on that five-state stretch of I-10 was one that also happens to play in a recovering disaster zone.

The Sea Wolves’ commitment to return was rewarded last season with the best season-tickets sales (more than 2,100) since the franchise joined the ECHL in 1996. But last summer, around the time renewals were due, gas prices spiked and the national economy began sagging. Renewals dropped, and with Pensacola’s club gone, travel expenses started climbing.

After the season began, another blow to the travel budget came when the Augusta (Ga.) Lynx folded, meaning every opponent but one would be more than a 10-hour bus ride away. The Gwinnett Gladiators in Duluth, Ga., are the Sea Wolves’ closest opponent, more than six hours away.

The lengthy travel – almost 25,000 miles in all this season – is tough not just on the budget, but also on players. Riding on a sleeper bus, players lie on bunks stacked in threes, with the next bunk less than two feet above them.

“Ten hours in either a bunk or on a seat doesn’t do very well for you,” said 28-year-old Sea Wolves defenseman Matt Deschamps. “You’re not moving around. Older guys tend to get a little more stiff, so I definitely had the pains of all these bus trips.”

For the owners, longer trips have also meant more hotel stays. Earlier this decade, the club could visit a half-dozen teams by driving four hours or less and with no overnight stay, but that economic model has disappeared.

Such developments, largely out of the Sea Wolves’ control, have raised the possibility that the club may have to stop play after this season – or join a smaller regional league like the fledgling Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL), a move that would substantially lower expenses, perhaps enough to keep pro hockey viable on the rebuilding Gulf Coast.

Certainly, the fan base remains for one of few family entertainment options in a place where most nightlife revolves around casinos. Crowds exceeding 7,000 attended each of the Sea Wolves’ two home games last weekend. But unless the club rallies to make the playoffs during remaining regular-season games – all on the road – those fans may not see them play again.

“This place was so devastated” after the storm, said Donna Corder, whose two daughters, Alexis and Brittany, stood nearby, wearing hockey jerseys and seeking autographs after a recent home game. “So to have this kind of turnout, this kind of team, I don’t want us to lose them.”

Corder, who rarely saw ice outside of a cold drink while growing up in the South, frowned at the notion that minor league hockey’s short-lived proliferation along I-10 proved the sport has little staying power in the region.

“I disagree with that because if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t see how much we liked it,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it that way. When you think of ice hockey you automatically think about the North, but I’m glad it’s in the South.”

Deschamps, who is from New York, wasn’t sure what to expect when he joined the Sea Wolves last season. He wound up living a block from the beach, where he walks his dog during home stands.

“It’s a constant reminder of how nice it really is down here,” he said. “You don’t see down South being like a hockey culture, but I was pleasantly surprised by the fan base and the way we’re treated down here. Everything’s first class and just how it would be up north. It’s been great.”

The Sea Wolves gave Walby, a Wisconsin native and former minor league player, his first head coaching job shortly before Katrina hit. American Hockey League squads offered him assistant coaching jobs after the storm, but he ignored the advice of relatives and friends and returned to Biloxi during the early days of recovery.

Part of it was his commitment to the owners who’d hired him. Part of it was his desire to be a force for good in a place that needed help.

“My neighbor, who I talked to four days after the storm, was sifting through his house … and I said, ‘What are you going to do?’ And he was just like, ‘What do you mean what am I going to do? We’re going to rebuild,”‘ Walby recalled. “Right from then on I just knew people were going to be struggling, their intestinal fortitude was going to be tested.”

When opening night finally arrived, Walby gave his neighbors tickets.

“They thanked me,” Walby recalled, “And I said, ‘Well, thank you for helping me understand that it’s the right thing to do.”‘

For now, Walby is focused on trying to get his team into the playoffs, but doesn’t deny the future of the club is tenuous beyond this season. Still, he has no regrets.

“If I walk away from this whole thing never to coach another game … I am a better person having gone through it than not going through it and being that person that’s judging everything on a TV 2,000 miles away,” he said. “I never want to be a part of another (hurricane), but I would love to be a part of a rebuilding because that’s when we start to see the strength of people and their community.”

Rebuilding will go on with or without hockey. But Stoskopf said he and fellow owners remain committed as ever, despite this season’s losses, to figuring out some way to keep hockey on the Gulf Coast.

“We see light at the end of the tunnel,” Stoskopf said. “I feel good about hockey’s survival here.”

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AP-ES-03-21-09 1042EDT

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