The date was Saturday, May 10, 2008.
Evansville’s sparkling new Ford Center did not yet exist, its current location then occupied by a hotel, parking lots, and a hodgepodge of half-empty century-old downtown buildings.
On a list of potential new markets, the Central Hockey League likely had Evansville ranked somewhere between Dover and Honolulu. That is to say, not even on the radar.
It was on that day that the Evansville IceMen were officially introduced as the city’s first professional hockey team. Owner Ron Geary and General Manager Chip Rossetti made the announcement at Swonder Ice Arena, in front of a few dozen hockey fans and some curious members of the local media.
Less than four years have passed since the day hockey arrived in Evansville, and to say “a lot has changed” would be a gross understatement.
The IceMen were initially supposed to play in the upstart Midwest Hockey League, but the MWHL never even got off the ground. Their first season was instead played in the All-American Hockey Association, a small collection of franchises orphaned by the failures of the MWHL and the Mid-Atlantic Hockey League. The AAHA re-structured and re-branded itself as the All-American Hockey League for Evansville’s second season, which ended with the IceMen hoisting the Davidson Cup as the league’s playoff champions.
The organization then moved up from “Single-A” to “Double-A” for their third season, when Geary purchased the rights to the dormant Muskegon Lumberjacks franchise in the International Hockey League. The AAHL IceMen franchise technically ceased to exist, with the Muskegon franchise officially moving to Evansville in its place and adopting the local team’s name.
But then, before the IceMen could play a single game under the IHL banner, the league entered into a “collaboration agreement” with the Central Hockey League, resulting in all of the IHL’s teams instead playing under the CHL banner for at least two seasons.
So, for those keeping score at home, that’s “officially” five leagues for a team that is currently in the midst of only its fourth season.
But wait, there’s more.
The team’s logo was changed after its first season. Twice. The first “new” logo was widely panned by fans after its public unveiling, so a second redesign was adopted instead. That logo remained for two seasons before being altered prior to the team’s fourth season, its first at the new Ford Center after the first three seasons were spent at Swonder.
The team’s jerseys were also changed after the inaugural season. Due to a change in jersey suppliers, a minor redesign followed after the second season. Then after the third season, a completely new suite of jerseys was adopted, along with a different color scheme.
The team’s radio debut came during the first season’s playoffs, when WKTG (93.9 FM) aired both post-season games via webcast. During the second season, WYIR (96.9 FM) carried all of the home games and a few road games as well. Current flagship station WEOA (1400 AM) came on board to broadcast all games starting with the team’s third season, and the fourth season also features a full broadcast schedule on IceMen Radio Network affiliate WMSK (1500 AM in Morganfield, Kentucky) with a partial schedule on both WITZ stations (104.7 FM and 990 AM) in Jasper, Indiana.
On the ice, the AAHA/AAHL IceMen featured two coaches and over 80 different players who compiled a regular-season record of 36-49-3, but went a combined 7-4 in the playoffs and claimed the league’s 2010 playoff title despite finishing the 2009-2010 regular season below the .500 mark. The CHL IceMen have had one coach and more than 50 players, and have played well enough this season in order to put together the team’s first-ever winning record.
In the stands, Evansville is quickly growing as a hockey market. During the first season at Swonder, the team generally played to crowds of around 1000 fans, with the occasional Sunday evening game attracting just 200 to 300 paying customers. Now, Evansville is averaging more than 4800 fans per home game at the Ford Center, firmly placing in the Top 5 league-wide. The IceMen have drawn particularly large crowds on Saturdays, including 8827 on Opening Night (Nov. 5), 9403 on “Pack the House Night” (Jan. 14), and 9487 for the season’s final Saturday home game (Feb. 25). Even the team’s Sunday home games routinely draw well over 2500 fans.
The date was Saturday, May 10, 2008. Given how much has changed since then, it may as well have been 2008 BC.
Through it all, though, one thing has remained the same – the “IceMen” name.
Its origin is not fancy or unique. It was not chosen via a “name the team” contest. It was not dusted off and given new life in honor of a former team in the city. It did not represent a grand vision, a civic issue, an economic cornerstone, or anything related to the city’s collective persona.
In fact, it was simply a name that Ron Geary and Chip Rossetti picked out of thin air. Rossetti actually began developing a web and e-mail presence using the “IceMen” name in February 2007, over a year before the name was officially announced to the public.
So on May 10, 2008, the just-unveiled “IceMen” name essentially had no meaning, no significance, no history, and no background worth noting.
Now, in a city that is admittedly still in its infancy as a hockey market, the “IceMen” name is no longer hollow.
It is two franchises, five leagues, four logos, four sets of jerseys, two color schemes, two home rinks, six radio stations, three head coaches, two general managers (plus a third on an interim basis), more than 130 players, four team captains, three losing seasons, one championship, and a rapidly-expanding fan base.
To many of those fans, especially those who have been around since the beginning and through all of the ups and downs and countless changes, the “IceMen” name IS hockey in Evansville. In just a few short years, what once lacked any tradition at all has become a tradition itself.
OTHER CHL TEAM NAME ORIGINS
Ever wonder how other CHL teams got their names? Now you know!
Allen: The patriotic “Americans” name was chosen because of how it “ties with the City of Allen and Collin County, who incorporate the same theme and colors in their identity,” according to Steve Duchesne, Allen Americans co-owner. Indeed, both the logo for the City of Allen and the seal for Collin County use the red-white-and-blue color scheme.
Arizona: The “Sundogs” name was chosen via a name-the-team contest, beating out 5 other finalists – Ambush, Dust Devils, Outlaws, Pronghorns, and Vipers. A “sundog” is an atmospheric phenomenon by which the reflection of sunlight by small ice crystals results in the optical illusion that two or three suns are in the sky. (Sundogs can be seen anywhere in the world in any season, and they are most commonly seen when the sun is low in the sky.) Thus, the Sundogs’ primary “S” logo contains two starbursts.
Bloomington: The new franchise negotiated with several local and international businesses about selling naming rights, but no deal was made. The team changed course and solicited suggestions on Facebook, then presented a short list of final contenders and asked for fan feedback. “Blaze” became the “runaway” name of choice, according to original General Manager Jim Riggs.
Dayton: The “Gems” name is a throwback to the original Dayton Gems franchise, which played in the old International Hockey League from 1964 to 1980. Dayton’s nickname is the “Gem City,” long marketed as a “gem” among Ohio locales since an 1845 Cincinnati Chronicle article used the term to describe Dayton.
Fort Wayne: Ernie Berg, the team’s first General Manager and also a co-owner back in 1952, wanted a team name that suggested speed, flash and excitement. He spelled “Komets” with a “K” instead of a “C” as a tribute to his wife Kathryn, who went by “Kay.” That decision helped give the team a unique identity, as many Komets fans simply refer to the team as “The K’s” in casual conversation.
Laredo: The “Bucks” name was selected in a name-the-team contest. It was the favorite due to the strong hunting industry in the Laredo area. Since 1986, the Laredo Chamber of Commerce has conducted the Cola Blanca Big Buck Contest, which is now a nationally-recognized buck-hunting competition that attracts contestants from as far away as New York and Minnesota.
Missouri: The “Mavericks” name was chosen via a name-the-team contest, which generated over 1000 different submissions. The franchise selected 10 finalists and over 12,000 votes were cast. The other finalists were the Independence Freedom, Independence Ice Hawks, Independence Outlaws, Independence Pioneers, Independence Presidents, Missouri Bullfrogs, Missouri Express, Missouri Maulers, and Missouri Mules.
Quad City: The “Mallards” name is a throwback to the original Quad City Mallards franchise, which played in the United Hockey League (originally the Colonial Hockey League) from 1995 to 2007.
Rapid City: The “Rush” name was the “overwhelming” favorite in a name-the-team contest. The other finalists were Bison, Choppers, and Road Hogs. The chosen name won, at least in part, due to Rapid City’s proximity to historic Mount Rushmore, which is about 20 miles southwest of the city. Mount Rushmore is featured in the team’s full logo.
Rio Grande Valley: The unique “Killer Bees” name emerged as the winner in a name-the-team contest, which had over 1200 entries. The RGV franchise plays in Hidalgo, Texas, which has been referred to as “The Killer Bee Capital of the World” since it was the location of the first confirmed Africanized Killer Bee colony in the United States, discovered in 1990. That “honor” is even commemorated by a 20-foot statue of a killer bee, which stands outside Hidalgo City Hall.
Texas: The “Brahmas” name is a reference to Fort Worth’s place in the history of bull riding. The Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, generally known as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, has been held annually since 1896. The Stock Show held the world’s first indoor rodeo in 1918, and was the first to feature Brahma bull riding in 1933.
Tulsa: The “Oilers” name is a tribute to Tulsa’s hockey history, with 3 prior franchises also using the “Tulsa Oilers” name. The team first played in the American Hockey Association (1926-1942), then resurfaced in the United States Hockey League (1945-1951). The third Oilers team skated in the original Central Hockey League from 1964 to 1984. Tulsa also had a minor-league baseball team called the Oilers, which operated off-and-on between 1905 and 1976 in a variety of leagues. All of the “Oilers” teams pay homage to the petroleum industry’s importance in the history of Tulsa, which was known as “The Oil Capital of the World” (a moniker verified by oil production statistics) for several decades in the 1900s.
Wichita: The “Thunder” name won a name-the-team contest, according to current General Manager Joel Lomurno. The “Thunder” name is, rather obviously, a reference to the Wichita area’s frequent thunderstorms.
Sources: Original research, League press releases, Team press releases, Komets.com, Wikipedia.com.