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After a year away, the Cincinnati Cyclones look to put 'winning culture' back on the ice

Cincinnati Cyclones Helmet
Cory Sharber
The Cincinnati Cyclones play their first regular season game at the Heritage Bank Center on Saturday against the Indy Fuel.

After finishing at the top of the division in the 2019-2020 season, the Cincinnati Cyclones were hoping to turn a successful regular season into a Kelly Cup. When the pandemic hit, the hockey team had to hang up their skates for a whole year. On Saturday night, the Cyclones return to the Heritage Bank Center.

The familiar sounds of skates hitting the ice and slapshots are finally coming back to the Queen City. The COVID-19 pandemic stopped the team right in its tracks. Justin Vaive is the team captain. This is his seventh year with the Cyclones. He spent part of last year with the rival Fort Wayne Komets, winning the Kelly Cup, the league's top prize.

"We were fortunate enough to win the championship so that's something I'll never forget, but at the same time, coming back here, you know I've always called this home over the last few years and it always will be," Vaive said. "Just to get back here, it's a little bit of a homecoming for me and all of the other guys that are returning, just excited to get it going."

He says only four players from the previous season are returning. Vaive says he's helping the new players adjust, knowing what it was like when he first came to Cincinnati.

"Any time you have that kind of changeover and you're implementing new systems and stuff, there's going to be some growing pains and guys are getting used to the city, the rink, the community, all of that stuff," Vaive said. "I think we've done a great job and the team's helped us do a great job kind of meshing together so I'm excited for it."

There's also a new head coach. Jason Payne was promoted from assistant during the offseason, becoming the only Black men's hockey coach in North America. His family immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean. He started playing hockey when he was four.

"Hockey is the main sport in Canada, it's the pastime," Payne said. "My parents know nothing about it, my mother took me to learn to skate. Woke me up one morning, brought me to the school ice arena near St. Mike's, it's a famous arena in downtown Toronto, and put me on the ice there at the learn-to-skate program and away we went."

He went on to play professionally for over a decade, including a stint with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the American Hockey League. Now, he's leading a team returning from a year off the ice.

"It's exciting, it's fun," Payne said. "It's refreshing to get back on the ice and get in front of the guys and get everybody back on the same page, the same playing level."

One player excited to return is Dajon Mingo. The pandemic put his career on hold.

"I signed with Norfolk in Virginia and they opted out first," Mingo said. "And then I signed with Cincy, and then once I signed with them, they opted out like, four or five days afterwards. So it was opt out, opt out, I was just like, 'Well, I'm done trying to find a team.' "

Mingo met Payne in 2019 at the league's all-star game, forming an early connection. Mingo's the team's only Black player and Payne is the first Black coach he's ever had. He says Payne is making sure the team is prepared for a long season.

"Head coach is obviously, it's different from an assistant," Mingo said. "He has more of a voice for a head coach and he's making sure in practices that we're doing stuff right or we're going to hear his voice."

That voice is being used to instill winning values in his players.

"We're going to develop our players for longevity in this game, to make it to the next level and the same expectation we've had for the last how many years here in Cincinnati," Payne said. "It's a winning culture and a winning expectation so we're going to continue to drive that. We want culture drivers, not culture killers."

The Cyclones play the Indy Fuel Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in their first regular season home game since January 2020. Last Saturday, the Cyclones defeated them 3-2.

Heritage Bank Center
Cory Sharber
The Cyclones get ready for their first regular season home game since January 2020.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.