It’s A Bittersweet Symphony

This weekend, the Evansville IceMen will play their final two home games at the Ford Center. The IceMen franchise will go dark next season, with the goal of relaunching in Owensboro in 2017-18. Back in Evansville, the 2016-17 season will see the Ford Center welcome a new hockey tenant in the SPHL.

Ever since the news broke that the IceMen would be leaving Evansville after this season, people have been asking me for my take on the situation. As folks have aired their frustrations and chosen sides on Facebook and elsewhere, I’ve pretty much stayed out of the discussion – and that’s no accident.

From the team’s failed arena lease negotiations to the developments in Owensboro to the announcement of the new SPHL franchise, it’s been a messy mix of business and politics that has taken fans on a dramatic and emotional rollercoaster ride. And I do like a good rollercoaster ride – but I prefer the kind you’d find at Holiday World, not the “beloved sports team relocation” variety.

Do not mistake my heretofore silence for indifference or apathy. I simply made a personal decision to avoid dipping my toes in this particular pool, because with a passion-driven issue like this, it’s far too easy to fall in and drown.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think of Ron Geary or Lloyd Winnecke or Mike Hall, and it doesn’t matter who I think deserves blame or praise. My opinion is irrelevant on this particular matter because this whole issue is a taboo topic akin to religious preferences – debating it is going to accomplish nothing beyond hurting a lot of feelings. Nobody is going to end up on the other side of the fence, and to make matters worse, the fence is going to end up in shambles anyway.

So even if you see me as some sort of “authority” or “expert” when it comes to the IceMen – and, let’s face it, who does, right? – nothing I believe or say is going to change anyone else’s opinion about the matter, and it certainly isn’t going to change the reality of the situation. What’s done is done, like it or not.

My late grandmother always loved that old song that implored folks to “accentuate the positive.” It’s a mentality I’ve always attempted to maintain as I’ve grown older. Sure, I can be a bit negative at times – I’ve taken my fair share of heat for being critical of popular IceMen players over the years – but in general, especially with the “big picture” aspects of life, I try to brush aside the bad and embrace the good.

And even though some may like to think otherwise, the eight-year history of the Evansville IceMen has been FULL of “good.” So as the end draws near, I will choose to focus on some of the many (MANY) fond memories that can never be taken away…

I will always fondly remember watching the puck drop for the franchise’s first game at Swonder, as hundreds of total strangers came together to pack the barn as a budding hockey family for the very first time – and I’ll also never forget the team’s first victory at Swonder on the very next night.

I will always fondly remember sitting in a meeting room at Swonder later that winter with my wife Amanda, Dixie and Steve Halber, Drew and Ashley Campbell, and one or two others who have since gone their separate ways, throwing around ideas for starting up a booster club that would eventually sell thousands of cowbells and provide countless items of need for the IceMen players.

I will always fondly remember the early days of the IceMen family – Brad Perkins finding himself as that crazy cowbell guy (and marrying Tamara on the ice during an intermission at an IceMen game), Preston Rhew donning facepaint and a blue wig and running the Swonder stairs like Rocky, Jennifer Watts developing a serious crush on a certain Swedish player who later sang “Happy Birthday” to her (in Swedish no less) during an episode of “IceMen Live,” Chris Lemon creating a fashion trend all his own by wearing kilts to home games, my old friend Jeff Walker emceeing contests like the entertainment extravaganza that was Musical Chairs On Ice, and, of course, Erica Coy and the Icy Hots starting chants and giving serious hell to anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves in the opposing penalty box.

I will always fondly remember the 24-4 shellacking of the Chicago Blaze on Valentine’s Day 2009, which temporarily gave the IceMen a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame thanks to Kira Hurley’s historic assist.

I will always fondly remember the wild and crazy rivalry with the Chi-Town Shooters – opening face-off fights, bench-clearing brawls, post-game fights, Chi-Town’s Clay Lewis attacking a linesman, Aaron Naphan fighting Shooters coach-turned-player Darren Seid, Seid getting half-naked during a brawl in the Shooters’ barn, the sweet taste of a comeback victory, the even sweeter taste of a shootout victory, and the sweetest taste of a dominant blowout win.

I will always fondly remember spinnin’ the tunes at Swonder and finding great joy in watching folks of all ages smile and laugh and dance and sing, and in seeing those folks go home at the end of the night in a good mood regardless of what the scoreboard said they should be feeling.

I will always fondly remember that cold winter night – December 5, 2009, to be exact – when we were all celebrating Blizzard’s birthday at Swonder and his surprise birthday present was unveiled. Who can forget the one-night-only appearance of Blizzard’s “best friend,” Icy the Saint Bernard?

I will always fondly remember joining Stephen Rickard on WKTG to call the action for the first two playoff games in team history, at Battle Creek at the end of the inaugural season. My feet are still cold!

I will always fondly remember communicating with Stephen and Derick Benigni (and occasionally Bridget McDonald too) over the headsets at Swonder, providing ourselves with our own private little game commentary that so often featured that unmentionable and crude four-word phrase that always made us giggle like schoolboys.

I will always fondly remember Bridget McDonald, without whom the IceMen would have never succeeded. She was the glue that held it all together when it was so often on the brink of falling apart. Anyone who ever enjoyed attending an IceMen game owes her a great debt of gratitude. There’s a reason why she’s the only person the booster club ever gave an award.

I will always fondly remember the team’s second season ending wonderfully with Isaac Coy and Ryan Ford and Aaron Naphan leading the IceMen to the AAHL Davidson Cup Championship at Swonder. It’s somehow fitting that although the franchise moved on to higher leagues and greener pastures, that night will forever remain the final playoff victory in Evansville IceMen history.

I will always fondly remember the IceMen joining the CHL and gaining the Fort Wayne Komets as natural rivals, which enabled me to dust off some long-buried hatred of the orange-and-black that dated back to my childhood in Indianapolis. But I won’t hold it against you if you’re one of those weird people who is actually *gasp* friendly with Komets fans thanks to social media.

I will always fondly remember the franchise’s first game at the Ford Center, a 3-1 victory over those EVIL Komets that featured Josh Beaulieu scoring the first-ever goal in the beautiful new barn. It was amazing to see 8827 fans gather for a hockey game in Evansville to kick off just the fourth season of pro hockey in the market. To this day, seeing the Ford Center packed for a game still gives me goosebumps.

I will always fondly remember that glorious 40-win CHL season, which featured another 3-1 victory over the Komets in front of 9403 fans on “Pack the House Night” and, soon thereafter, Evansville’s first-ever home shutout in the form of a 3-0 blanking of the Komets in front of 9487 Maniacs.

I will always fondly remember the camaraderie of the ever-evolving army of off-ice officials, including my wife Amanda, Derick Benigni, Chad “Beefcake” Burleigh, Lindsay “Call Me” Mabry, “Awkward Dancing Dad Cam” Hall-of-Famer Steve Halber (and occasionally Dixie too), Chris Phillips, Jeff Meisenhelder, Dave and Deanna Tuttle, Jack Howe, Jamie Huff, Dave Huff, John Kells, Linda Freeman, and probably dozens of others who have volunteered their time and talents through the years.

I will always fondly remember fans fighting to get the Canadian flag rightfully reinstalled alongside Old Glory at the Ford Center after it was unceremoniously removed thanks to the complaints of a few ignorant citizens.

I will always fondly remember Tommy Mason morphing from an admittedly green hockey guy into a kinda-sorta seasoned fan who understands the finer points of the game, like the fact that linesmen don’t call penalties. With hard work and a colorful personality, he became “one of us” and an undeniably integral element of IceMen home games. But don’t ever ride on a golf cart he’s driving!

I will always fondly remember pretty much everything Stephen Rickard did while working for the IceMen – even the infamous “dead dog” question. Until earlier this season when some family health issues arose, I was one of only two people (Stephen being the other) who had attended every single home game in the history of the IceMen. Stephen becoming the “last man standing” in that exclusive club was most appropriate, because no one lives and breathes the IceMen quite like him. He is a top-notch human being who absolutely loves what he does, and I am proud to call him a friend. Just don’t ask me about those nights we spent sharing a hotel room in Battle Creek!

I will always fondly remember the two best pre-game hype videos the IceMen ever produced – “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” in 2012-13, and the extended version of “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark” that only played once at the 2013-14 home opener.

I will always fondly remember countless on-ice moments from the Ford Center years – Jake Obermeyer’s buzzer-beater with one-tenth of a second left in OT, Wade MacLeod and Nathan Moon both notching hat tricks in the same game, Matt Schepke’s emotional farewell, Cal Heeter sending an opponent flying skates-over-teakettle, the recent St. Patrick’s Day brawl with the Komets…the list could go on and on.

I will always fondly remember so many of the home game promotions – mascot broomball, ear-piercing Education Day games, warm-and-fuzzy Teddy Bear Tosses, explosive New Year’s Eve games, costume-filled Star Wars Nights, hockey fanatic dreams like appearances by the Stanley Cup and “Miracle on Ice” Olympian Dave Christian, emotional nights like Pink the Rink (which hits particularly close to home for me since my mom is a breast cancer survivor)…and again, the list could go on and on.

I will always fondly remember the laughs shared while recording (sorry – pre-living) the IceMen Insights podcasts with Derick Benigni. It began as an unscripted experiment – just a couple of puck-heads hoping to kill about 15 minutes on the radio by talking hockey. Now, we’re approaching the end of our fourth season, with nearly 100 episodes in the can. We’ve always wanted the show to be informative but entertaining, and we just hoped that if we had fun recording it, you’d have fun listening to it. That certainly seems to have been the case, and we thank everyone who’s ever tuned in. If only you could hear some of the things that DIDN’T make it on the air! [BTW: For those who are wondering about the future of and the IceMen Insights podcasts, please stay tuned. I'll share news as plans for the future become finalized.]

I will always fondly remember, whether it was 900 people at Swonder or 9000 people at the Ford Center, the unmistakable roar of the fans rising in unison and celebrating an IceMen goal. That unbridled joy makes hard-earned hockey goals so wonderfully unique – there’s nothing else like it in sports.

I will always fondly remember the amazing impact the IceMen made on so many people – Anita Ice finding strength in the love and encouragement from “Anita’s Army” during her battle against cancer, Max Shuler and countless kids like him discovering a lifelong passion and building confidence by strapping on skates and playing the sport themselves, Jacob Franklin drawing on the support of his hockey family to grow and mature and start a family in spite of having Asperger’s, Stewart Crichton connecting with Maniacs from an ocean away and actually visiting Evansville from his home in Scotland (!) to see the IceMen in person, the special-needs kids from Spirit Cheer smiling from ear to ear every time they perform during an intermission, Aaron and Melissa Miller (among other couples) meeting at games and subsequently falling in love and tying the knot, and thousands of students soaking in a fantastic and powerful message from Brian Patafie and IceMen players thanks to the “No More Bullies” program.

I will always fondly remember the even more incredible impact the IceMen had on my own family. My wife Amanda became the official scorekeeper on the spot at the very first IceMen home game when the game started and she realized that Stephen Rickard was the only person between the penalty boxes, attempting to announce and control the clock and keep score all at the same time. Nobody asked her to go help him out. She just did it, even though she’d never worked the clock at Swonder or kept a scoresheet for a hockey game at any level, because that’s the kind of person she is. And she kept doing it throughout the team’s entire three-year run at Swonder. Because of our volunteer efforts, Ron Geary graciously included us on the list of people who received personalized championship rings after the IceMen won the AAHL title. We also have a photo of just the two of us holding the Davidson Cup on the ice at Swonder after the deciding game, and it still hangs on the wall in our living room to this day. Less than two weeks before the IceMen moved downtown to the Ford Center, we welcomed our son Evan into the world. He attended his first IceMen game before he was a month old, accidentally head-butted the Stanley Cup as an infant, and now he’s an energetic four-year old who loves all things hockey because, in large part, he’s been to all but about a dozen home games since he was born.

So I will always fondly remember the priceless moments, big and small, many of which have nothing to do with the game itself, that the IceMen have allowed us to share with our son – moments that make a hockey-crazed father fight back happy tears while recalling and typing out for this story. Running all over every square inch of the building and saying hi to everyone he recognizes (which is a LARGE percentage of the people at most games), riding the escalator and “racing” his disadvantaged daddy who’s stuck huffing up the adjacent stairs, high-fiving John the elevator attendant and politely requesting the proper floor before making small talk with him on the ride up, exchanging fist-bumps with Lindsay Mabry in the press box before every game, yelling “LET’S GO ICE MENNNNN” with Stephen, adorably ordering his own popcorn and getting even the most grizzled concession worker to smile, standing for the anthem and joining me in doing the “hockey player shuffle” as we rock back and forth together, exuding pure excitement at seeing the Zambonis, dancing to the power-play song, singing along with “The Good Old Hockey Game,” yelling “FIGHT” every time someone drops the gloves, providing us with frequent scoreboard updates just in case we forgot what the score was from 13 seconds ago, crying when the ZOOperstars run into each other and fall down because he just hates seeing anyone be hurt, scanning the crowd to find Rickard during every media timeout, saying “thanks Tommy” when there’s one minute left in the period, and hugging Blizzard…boy, does he sure love Blizzard…

If you’re reading this, you surely have individual memories like mine. Lots of IceMen memories are special, but it’s those most intimate personal moments – when IceMen hockey and your life became so beautifully intertwined – that are to be truly cherished.

I’ve often told disgruntled fans that a bad night at the rink is still better than a good night anywhere else. Sure, there have been some absolute clunkers – more than any of us would prefer – but hockey is a lot like pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty damn good. And despite all of the losses and disappointments, despite the way it’s all coming to an end, the past eight seasons of IceMen hockey have indeed been pretty damn good.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative…

One comment

  1. Chad Butleigh says:

    Beautiful article! Thanks for always being the source!

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