Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
Note: The PHN edit has been changed to past-tense to meet site standards. Published here on IceMenManiacs.com is the “original” present-tense version.
It is unlike any other Saturday in Evansville, Indiana. The unassuming calendar simply reads “November 5, 2011.” But at least for one evening, a once-sleepy downtown area now serves as the hub of hockey in the state of Indiana.
The scene revolves around the new $127 million Ford Center, the focal point for revitalizing the heart of a city that has been victimized by urban sprawl. Its construction has not been without controversy, and the naysayers are not small in number. They question the wisdom of building a new arena in a struggling economy. They claim the facility is too close to a dangerous and crime-riddled part of town. They argue that parking in the area is not sufficient. These are all debatable issues, and each has indeed been debated ad nauseam.
However, on this night, none of that matters because the spotlight is firmly on the Central Hockey League’s Evansville IceMen, who are prepared to take on the Fort Wayne Komets in the first-ever hockey game at the sparkling new arena.
To the southwest, the sun sinks in the afternoon sky, dipping toward the horseshoe bend in the Ohio River. Its fading rays shine between the city’s office buildings, which gradually transform into nondescript silhouettes that further shift the focus toward Ford Center.
To the northeast, a sprawling parking lot is rapidly filling up as scores of fans enjoy burgers and beverages at a tailgate party that was organized and promoted online by fans of both teams. There are blue-clad IceMen fans and there are orange-tinted Komets fans, a bit awkwardly but still cordially sharing the same asphalt. With a few bold exceptions, it’s like watching boys and girls at a middle-school dance. The teams’ fans generally stick with their own, only occasionally mingling with the other side.
At the plaza in front of Ford Center, a team-sponsored street party gradually matures from a small gathering into a large assembly. A local radio station provides music as children gleefully fly through the air inside a bounce house. Fans of all ages exchange stories and laughs, meandering from person to person in an effort to catch up with all of the familiar faces. It’s essentially a family reunion after a seemingly endless off-season apart.
The tailgaters begin to migrate to the plaza. A small group of Komets fans enters the fray, and they are welcomed to the party accordingly. One IceMen fan yells out “KOMETS!” The rest of the “IceMen Maniacs” know the drill and respond in unison. “SU-UCK!”
A steady stream of fans traverse the paving bricks of Main Street to visit the recently-relocated IceMen team office, within whispering distance of the team’s hulking new on-ice home. Many spend some time in the office’s storefront gift shop, which is bustling with activity and the sounds of a cash register.
Blizzard, the polar-bear mascot of the IceMen, emerges from the team office and joins the street party. It has grown to include fans wearing virtually every IceMen jersey design that has ever existed, both game-worn and replica. There are standard black and white sweaters from each of the team’s prior three seasons, and a number of the new blue and white designs that have yet to see the Ford Center ice.
There are also special game-worn and autographed jerseys won via auction on various theme nights, such as Heart Night and New Year’s Eve. Most of the players represented on the backs of the sweaters are no longer in Evansville, some having spent just a few games with the IceMen. Still, they’re all a part of what this has become.
The volume is soon turned up – way up – when the Boom Squad joins the party. The collection of more than 100 inner-city youths displays impressive percussive talent, energizing the plaza and sending drumbeats careening throughout downtown.
IceMen super-fan Brad Perkins, donning an inaugural-season jersey and his trademark face paint, procures a pair of drumsticks and joins the performance. Those who know Perkins enjoy a good laugh. Those who don’t know him chuckle as well.
The adult leading the Boom Squad addresses the throng of fans after a song concludes. He admits that he does not know much about hockey, but he’s received a tip from a fan about something he should try. Not knowing what he’s getting himself into, he bravely trusts the tipster and yells out “KOMETS!” The resulting “SU-UCK!” rivals the Boom Squad’s drums in acoustic intensity.
Thoroughly enjoying the reaction, he goes back for more. “KOMETS!” he screams. The fans respond again, this time with even more vigor. He loves it. A third time? Why not? The crowd completes the “SU-UCK!” hat trick. The Boom Squad leader laughs and gives his tipster a thumbs-up.
From dozens to hundreds to thousands, the party expands in scope as the sky darkens from blue to black.
The IceMen franchise has never drawn even as many as 1800 fans to a single game before. If it had ever tried, the organization would have been in violation of an untold number of fire codes at tiny Swonder Ice Arena, the 1500-seat recreational rink that served as the team’s home for three seasons.
But Swonder, still the team’s primary practice facility, is dwarfed by Ford Center. The new arena’s seating capacity for hockey is around 9000, and the IceMen will need the vast majority of those seats on this night.
As the temperature cools into the fifties, the building’s doors are finally opened. The first 1500 fans who enter are given commemorative IceMen logo pucks. They are all gone in a flash.
Ticket bar codes are scanned at a frantic pace as the organization’s previous attendance record of 1704 is surpassed, then doubled, then tripled. Quadrupled? You bet. Quintupled? Sure thing. The record-obliterating attendance is initially announced as 8722, and later revised upward to 8827 after final ticket sales totals are tallied.
Inside the arena, the thousands of fans – many attending their first hockey game – are settling in and surveying the scene. Most are getting their first look at this shiny new events center, which has to-date only hosted a few open houses, a couple of small private parties, and a trio of exhibition college basketball games.
An enormous state-of-the-art jumbotron hangs from the ceiling, with the scoreboard’s clock counting down as the excitement ramps up. The LED ribbon boards between seating levels rotate between sponsor plugs and various other promotional information. Music bellows out from the numerous speakers throughout the building.
It looks and feels like a major-league event.
The crowd comes to its feet and roars with approval as the IceMen take to the ice for the pre-game warm-ups. The Komets then enter to a chorus of boos. The buzz builds as the players prepare for the biggest game in Evansville’s brief hockey history.
After warm-ups, Evansville Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel takes the Zamboni for a quick spin around the ice. He seems to take pleasure in every second of his joyride as he looks around at the civic progress he made happen. He knew all along that building an arena downtown would bring out a vocal opposition and perhaps harm his political career, at least in the short-term. But on this night, that is of no concern to him. He savors the moment, the dream having become reality, and his vision for enhancing the city’s future having come to fruition.
Moments later, the lights go out and the crowd explodes again. A hype video appears on the scoreboard’s huge crystal-clear video screens, a far cry from the classroom-style projector-and-screen presentation that was occasionally employed at Swonder. The fans pop for various players and statements featured in the video, as the buzz approaches its crescendo.
The video ends and the entire IceMen roster is introduced. Every player is heartily applauded, from returning stars Brian Bicek and Nicklas Lindberg to marquee summer acquisitions Todd Robinson and Philippe Plante to popular enforcers Mark Cody and Mike Sgroi to unknown commodities Bryan Gillis and Malcolm Gwilliam. The message is clear: If you’re representing the IceMen, the Maniacs support you completely.
The lights re-illuminate in an instant, and it is time for the ceremonial puck drop. Mayor Weinzapfel is introduced to polite applause mixed with a smattering of boos. Tuxedoed IceMen Owner Ron Geary joins him, along with CHL Commissioner Duane Lewis. They drop the puck, and the fans applaud once again.
After the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, the monumental moment finally arrives. Referee Peter Tarnaris skates to center-ice with puck in hand. Robinson represents the home team, while Colin Chaulk takes the draw for the visitors.
The centers glide into the massive IceMen logo and lower their sticks, and Tarnaris snaps the rubber to the ice. Robinson, the IceMen team captain, wins the face-off and the crowd cheers.
The game itself is a blur. Early in the first period, Sgroi fights Brent Henley to the delight of the crowd. Less than a minute later, Josh Beaulieu scores the first goal in Ford Center history, and the fans erupt.
The opening stanza leads to the first intermission featuring the hilarious ZOOperstars, who quickly win over those in attendance with their high-energy act. They are a special attraction on a unique night.
The Komets knot the score early in the second period and briefly quiet some of the evening’s sizzle, but the crowd is immediately reinvigorated when Jordan Little drops the gloves with Kaleigh Schrock. The home team rides the recaptured momentum and cashes in with another goal by Beaulieu, followed by a lamplighter from former Komet Sean O’Connor.
The ZOOperstars return during the second intermission, which also features the always-popular Chuck-A-Puck contest. A rainbow of foam pucks flutter to the ice, and a handful of lucky fans earn themselves prizes from sponsors that did not exist a season earlier.
The final frame gets chippy, with a pair of fights and shenanigans aplenty. A media-timeout karaoke contest leads to the contestant and thousands of others singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” – even though they never planned on stopping anyway. Neither team tickles the twine in the third period, and the IceMen prevail 3-1 over the rival Komets.
Beaulieu is named the Star of the Game. His on-ice interview is interrupted by O’Connor, who delivers a face-full of shaving cream to his linemate. Beaulieu doesn’t mind. The Ontario native continues the interview with a smile on his foam-framed face.
He’s not alone. The fans head for the exits, with smiles on their faces as well – even some of the orange-and-black attendees.
Komets fan Don Brecht is among those who drove the five-plus hours south from Fort Wayne for the game. His attire includes a helmet that features an orange goal light, which he turns on whenever the Komets score. With the home team leading 3-1 late in the game, an IceMen fan noticed his headgear and playfully remarked, “Somebody’s going back to Fort Wayne with a fully-charged battery.”
Brecht took it in stride, having enjoyed his experience despite his team coming out on the short end of the scoreboard. “It had to be one of the best comments I have heard at a game in a long time. It was one of the best road games I have ever gone to. Everyone was nice and thanked us for coming down. Not ONE person made a comment that was rude, offensive to us, or could have been taken as anything except normal hockey teasing. I will be coming back to the Ford Center!”
It has been a special night in Evansville, a celebration of Hoosier hockey and the dawning of a new era in this river city. There will be more hockey games at Ford Center, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of them. But there will only be one debut, one “first.”
For the thousands of IceMen fans who spilled out of Ford Center, the final score was just a bonus. The one-of-a-kind Opening Night memories, well, those are truly special.