Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
“Change is inevitable.”
It’s a common refrain in many facets of life, but perhaps most fitting to the world of minor league hockey – and especially if you’re a fan of the Evansville IceMen.
The IceMen are on the brink of starting their seventh season of operation. Since the franchise’s inception, the only true constant has been change.
Evansville was originally supposed to join the pro hockey ranks as a member of the upstart Midwest Hockey League, but the MWHL never got off the ground and the IceMen first hit the ice in 2008 as a member of the fledgling All-American Hockey Association, which restructured and changed its name to the All-American Hockey League after one season. The IceMen won the AAHL championship in the team’s second season and subsequently moved up to the International Hockey League in 2010, but the IHL was dissolved into the Central Hockey League before Evansville ever played a game under the IHL banner. Then in 2012 after two years in the CHL, the IceMen jumped to the ECHL, which just last week absorbed the CHL to create a single 28-team developmental league at the Double-A level. Evansville had been shifted to the ECHL’s Western Conference back in June, but the CHL consolidation subsequently resulted in the IceMen moving back to the Eastern Conference after just 107 calendar days (and zero games) in the West.
The IceMen played their inaugural season with Jason Reichart as the man behind the bench. Jack Collins took over coaching duties for the team’s second season, winning the aforementioned AAHL championship. Rich Kromm then piloted the team through three seasons before giving way to Jeff Pyle last season. Now the IceMen are helmed by Dwight Mullins, the team’s fifth head coach and its third in as many seasons. Mullins, who has finished with a winning percentage over .600 in four of his five seasons as a professional head coach, will attempt to lead the IceMen to the ECHL playoffs for the first time. He signed a two-year contract.
Evansville played its first ECHL season (2012-13) with two NHL affiliates, the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets. In 2013-14, the IceMen cut ties with the Blues and forged ahead with only the Blue Jackets affiliation. This summer, Evansville moved on from Columbus as well, and signed a new two-year affiliation agreement with the Ottawa Senators. Mullins is no stranger to the Senators organization, having spent the past two seasons behind the bench of Ottawa’s now-former ECHL affiliate, the Elmira Jackals.
Got all that? Good. But wait, there’s more…
The AAHA/AAHL years saw a variety of volunteers serve as equipment manager for the IceMen. Jason Schweinsberg then became the team’s first full-time equipment manager for the 2010-11 season. Brian Patafie took over in 2011-12 before transitioning to his “natural” position of athletic trainer the following season. Jeff Adams then filled the vacated equipment manager slot for a year, and Ross Hoerman had the job last season. Local businessman Jim Beabout now enters the 2014-15 season as Evansville’s fifth equipment manager in as many seasons.
The IceMen have donned five sets of jerseys, including a new black-and-blue suite that was unveiled earlier this month. (The previous jersey suite, which was a combination of navy and sky blues with no black, had been used since 2011.) The team has also had three primary logos, plus a fourth that was introduced but never used. The current logo has been in use since 2011. It’s one of the few things that hasn’t changed since the team last played a meaningful game.
Game broadcasts have appeared on four Evansville radio stations, along with several other regional network affiliates. The team’s new flagship station is 105.3 WJLT, Evansville’s ESPN Radio affiliate. According to the IceMen office, Evansville is the only team in the ECHL with an ESPN Radio station as its broadcast home. Through the years, the team’s broadcasts have featured four different play-by-play men, including newly-hired Sean Pooley.
Also new to the team office is veteran minor-league executive Jim Riggs, hired during the summer in the newly-created role of IceMen Chief Operating Officer. And new atop the team’s ticket sales staff is Matt Kiel, just one season removed from being honored as the ECHL’s Ticket Executive of the Year in 2013.
So for those keeping score at home, here’s the 2014 Evansville IceMen off-season in a nutshell: Same league but with eight new teams (the seven CHL transfers plus the expansion Indy Fuel), moved to the Western Conference but then back to the Eastern Conference, new head coach, new assistant coach (more on that later), new NHL affiliate, new equipment manager, new jerseys, new radio home, new radio voice, new COO, and new ticket sales manager.
And we haven’t even started talking about the players yet!
More than 210 different players have worn an IceMen uniform in a regular season game. That number will quickly grow when Evansville opens the 2014-15 season at home against Gwinnett on Saturday. Of the 23 players who made the team’s season-opening roster, only nine played for the IceMen last season. And of those nine, only five played more than 25 games for Evansville.
However, while many of the 23 players are new to Evansville, few are new to professional hockey. The IceMen roster features just four rookies, but includes eight players who played in the AHL last season as well as four veterans (by ECHL rule).
Evansville’s group of forwards is particularly experienced and deep. Nathan Moon (45 points in 51 games) and Matt Lowry (39 points in 53 games) were among Evansville’s leading scorers last season, and they will be expected to be near the top of the team’s scoring chart again this year. Also returning from the 2013-14 IceMen are Andre Bouvet-Morrissette (10 points in 23 games before sustaining a season-ending injury) and Peter Sakaris (24 points in 46 games as a rookie).
Four forwards begin the season in Evansville on assignment, including familiar face Patrick Kennedy. The Ontario native has played 80 games for the IceMen while under ECHL contract during the past two seasons, but he finished the 2013-14 season on loan to the AHL Utica Comets. Kennedy played 40 games with the Comets, and Utica liked him enough to give him a new AHL contract for 2014-15. He has been assigned to Evansville instead of Kalamazoo (Utica’s ECHL affiliate) because the IceMen gave him a qualifying offer during the off-season, thus retaining his ECHL rights.
The other three forwards on assignment are from Ottawa and the Senators’ AHL affiliate, the Binghamton Senators. Jakub Culek (from Ottawa) had 30 points in 49 games as a rookie with Elmira last season, playing under Mullins. Danny Hobbs (from Binghamton) also spent most of last season with Mullins in Elmira, compiling 35 points in 52 games. Brandon Wong (from Binghamton) returns to North America this season after spending a year in Europe. Wong previously had 54 points in 56 games with Greenville in 2012-13, so he is no stranger to the ECHL.
Two forwards come to the IceMen fresh off of winning back-to-back CHL championships as teammates with the Allen Americans. Veteran Jarret Lukin spent the past five seasons with the Americans, including three under Mullins before the coach moved on to Elmira. Kale Kerbashian had 50 points in 54 games for Allen during the 2013-14 regular season, and had two goals and an assist (along with a plus-4 rating) in the deciding 5-2 victory over Denver that gave the Americans what turned out to be the CHL’s final playoff title.
Rounding out the offense are veteran Dirk Southern, who had 39 points in 57 games with Gwinnett last season, and veteran enforcer Kevin Harvey. Rookie Dana Fraser starts the season on 21-day Injured Reserve, having sustained a leg injury during training camp.
On defense, the IceMen will lean heavily on tough-as-nails Guy Lepine, who has played more than 350 pro games but is not a veteran by ECHL rule because roughly half of his experience was in a European league that does not count toward the ECHL’s totals. Lepine was a cornerstone of Evansville’s blueline in 2013-14, and his physical presence was sorely missed when he earned a six-week look in the AHL with Utica. The Montreal native earned a training camp invite from Ottawa this season, and also joined Binghamton on a pre-season trip to France.
Coming to the IceMen on assignment from Ottawa is defenseman Troy Rutkowski, who played 41 games for Elmira with Mullins last season. Binghamton has sent a blueliner to Evansville as well, in the form of big veteran Ty Wishart. Wishart, who spent last season in Europe, has played over 300 career AHL games as well as 26 NHL games.
In addition to Lepine, Evansville has three other returning defensemen – fourth-year pro Donnie Harris, third-year pro Antoine Corbin, and second-year pro Zack Currie. New to the team are rookies Zach Sternberg and Randy Cure.
The last line of defense could turn out to be one of the ECHL’s best goaltending tandems.
Cal Heeter spent the past two seasons under NHL contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, for whom he made his NHL debut last season. Heeter spent most of the 2013-14 campaign with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, the since-relocated Adirondack Phantoms. The St. Louis native posted a 2.65 Goals-Against Average and a .912 Save Percentage in 44 games with the Phantoms. This season, Heeter was in training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he was not offered a contract. Three days after exiting Toronto, Heeter signed an ECHL deal with the IceMen.
Chris Driedger will start his first full professional season in Evansville, on assignment from Ottawa. Driedger begins his three-year NHL entry-level contract after completing a solid junior career in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen. In his last two WHL seasons, Driedger went 64-28-11 with a 2.57 Goals-Against Average and a .916 Save Percentage. A third-round pick of the Senators in the 2012 draft, Driedger made his pro debut with Mullins in Elmira at the end of last season, after the WHL season concluded. The 20-year old played four games for the Jackals, then made his AHL debut in Binghamton.
So what about that new assistant coach? That would be Josh Beaulieu, the captain of the 2013-14 IceMen who decided to hang up his skates and get into coaching after seven pro seasons. Beaulieu retires as the IceMen franchise’s all-time games-played leader, and is also among the team’s all-time leaders in points (tied for second), goals (second), and assists (third).
The 2014 off-season for the Evansville IceMen was much like those before it – another time of transition, with a fresh round of changes aimed at finding stability and success. But now, perhaps more than ever before, IceMen fans can feel like the array of revolving doors may finally stop spinning – or, at least, slow down just a tad.
Mullins and Beaulieu are the latest to be tasked with building a winner in Evansville. The IceMen have not won a post-season game since 2010, the year of the AAHL championship. While an ECHL championship is certainly the ultimate goal these days, a playoff appearance and at least one post-season victory would be a nice step in the right direction. But given the talent assembled, this season’s Evansville IceMen just might be able to take a LOT of steps in the right direction.
If so, the 2015 IceMen off-season might actually be noteworthy for its lack of changes – which would be a pleasant change indeed.