Written for ProHockeyNews.com and re-published with permission.
(Click the link to view the story on PHN.)
After three loss-filled seasons – two at the “Single-A” level along with the team’s inaugural “Double-A” season in the Central Hockey League – the Evansville IceMen finally gave their fans a lot to cheer about during the 2011-2012 season. It may not have ended so well, but it was still a successful campaign by numerous measures.
Sure, the ultimate goal is always to win the championship. That was Evansville’s primary objective this season, and it will be next season as well. But only one team can hoist the Cup each season, and the successes of the rest should not be completely dismissed simply because they failed to emerge as the “last team standing” in the post-season.
The 2011-2012 season was the first winning season in Evansville’s four-year pro hockey history. The IceMen went 40-22-4 in their second CHL season, vastly improved from a 21-32-13 mark during the team’s first year in the league. Evansville finished 4th league-wide with 84 points in the season standings, up from 55 (last among 18 teams) a year prior. And the IceMen were tied for 2nd in Wins, one season after finishing dead-last in the league in total victories.
Evansville was a solid 16-6-4 in 1-goal games, up from 10-7-13 the season before. (The 2011-2012 team had 6 Overtime Wins, the most in the league.) The IceMen also went 9-4-0 in 2-goal games, far better than the 6-9-0 mark in 2010-2011 games decided by a deuce. Lump those stats together, and Evansville improved from 16-16-13 to 25-10-4 in “close” games. That certainly made a big difference!
Speaking of differences, the IceMen had a terrible goal differential (-61) in 2010-2011, but were a respectable +23 during the most recent season. And the 2011-2012 squad benefitted from very strong special teams play. Evansville finished 2nd in Penalty Killing success (85.90%) and 3rd in Power-Play efficiency (19.62%).
The above barely scratches the surface. Below are more examples of the success of the 2011-2012 Evansville IceMen.
• The IceMen started the season 6-0-1, the last CHL team without a regulation loss. The hot start began with a 5-0 blanking of the Komets in Fort Wayne’s home opener on October 22, in front of a crowd of 10,071 at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. Pier-Olivier Pelletier made 29 saves to earn Evansville’s first-ever shutout against the intrastate rival Komets.
• Just two weeks later, the IceMen and Komets met again for another home opener, this time in Evansville on November 5. The IceMen properly christened the Ford Center with a 3-1 victory in a physical game that featured 4 fights, much to the delight of the franchise-record 8827 fans in attendance. Josh Beaulieu forever wrote his name in the Evansville record books by scoring the first-ever professional hockey goal at the Ford Center, just 2:42 into the game. (Click here to watch Beaulieu’s goal, and click here to watch the end of the game and the victory celebration.)
• January was a very good month for the IceMen, who went 10-0-2 in the month’s first dozen games before finally losing in regulation in the month’s final contest, a 4-3 defeat at Dayton. The 12-game unbeaten streak from January 3-27 was the longest in the CHL all season. In the midst of the streak, rookie goaltender Bryan Gillis posted back-to-back shutouts against Quad City on January 17 and 20. Including portions of the games before and after the consecutive “donuts,” Gillis racked up an incredible shutout streak of 175 minutes and 14 seconds. The first-year pro was a perfect 10-0-0 during the month.
• On January 8, the IceMen beat the Bloomington Blaze 4-1 in front of 4178 fans, an unusually large crowd for a Sunday evening. The attendance spike was largely due to an appearance by the Stanley Cup, which produced an incredibly long line in the Ford Center lobby as many of the fans wanted to get their picture taken with “Hockey’s Holy Grail.”
• Less than a week passed before another noteworthy night – Evansville’s first-ever sellout at the Ford Center. A capacity crowd of 9403 set a new franchise attendance record on “Pack the House Night” on January 14. The IceMen prevailed 3-1 over the hated Komets, and the “IceMen Maniacs” were pleasantly surprised by the return of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll (Part 2)” as the team’s goal celebration song. Incredibly popular as the team’s goal song for the first 3 seasons of pro hockey in Evansville, it had been “retired” with the move to the Ford Center. The song unexpectedly returned for the team’s first sellout at the new arena, but would only last for 5 games before being “re-retired.” (Click here to watch RRP2′s return.)
• January was great, but February was perhaps even better. From February 10-26, the IceMen won 10 straight games, the longest winning streak by any CHL team all season. (No other team won more than 7 in a row.) The most memorable night during the streak was February 25, when the IceMen beat the Komets 3-0 in Evansville’s last home game against Fort Wayne during the regular season. Pelletier made 33 saves to secure Evansville’s first-ever home shutout against the Komets, and another record-breaking standing-room only crowd of 9487 witnessed it.
• The regular season’s home schedule wrapped up on Friday, March 23, when the IceMen beat Quad City 2-1. The loss officially eliminated the desperate Mallards from playoff contention, and the victory gave Evansville a strong final home record of 21-11-1. A crowd of 8166 turned out for the game – the fourth-largest all season, and the biggest for a non-Saturday home game. (Click here to watch the end of the finale, complete with another unexpected return of RRP2 during a late-game stoppage of play.)
ON THE LEADERBOARD:
• Todd Robinson won the CHL’s Joe Burton Scoring Champion Award, leading all players with 92 points in 66 games. He also topped the league with 69 assists (10 more than second-place Sebastien Thinel of Missouri) and 30 power-play assists. In addition, Robinson put together the league’s longest individual point streak, piling up 28 points in a 17-game stretch from February 3 to March 3.
• Brian Bicek scored a career-high 33 goals, finishing 5th in the league despite missing the season’s final 8 games due to injury. No other CHL player scored more short-handed goals (4), and Bicek was tied for 4th in the league in plus/minus with a stellar +24 mark.
• Malcolm Gwilliam made the most of playing much of the season as Robinson’s linemate, racking up 19 goals (tied for 6th among rookies) and 38 points (12th among first-year players).
• Matt Gens led all CHL defensemen in scoring with 47 points, and was one of just two blueliners (the other being Fort Wayne’s Frankie DeAngelis) to finish in the Top 50 in overall scoring. Among defensemen, Gens was also tied for 5th with 12 goals, alone in 3rd with 35 assists, and by himself in 2nd with 16 power-play assists.
• Gens was joined by a pair of fellow IceMen blueliners on the league’s scoring leaderboard for defensemen. Steve Makway had more assists (38) than any other CHL defenseman, and finished 5th with 42 points. And Philippe Plante compiled 12 goals (tied for 5th), 7 power-play goals (tied for 2nd), and 4 short-handed assists (1st).
• Bryan Gillis finished the season 4th among all goaltenders in Wins (26) and Save Percentage (.920), and 6th in Goals-Against Average (2.51). The rookie netminder suffered the fewest losses (8) among the 18 CHL goaltenders who appeared in at least 30 games.
AWARDS AND HONORS:
• The IceMen were the only team with one of the 5 finalists in all 4 major CHL season-ending player awards. Todd Robinson was a nominee for Most Valuable Player, ultimately finishing 2nd in the voting despite leading the league in scoring. (He was also one of three forwards named to the All-CHL Team.) Matt Gens was a finalist for Most Outstanding Defenseman, and Bryan Gillis was in the running for both Most Outstanding Goaltender and Rookie of the Year. In addition, Rich Kromm finished 2nd in CHL Coach of the Year voting, behind only Wichita’s Kevin McClelland.
• Evansville also racked up numerous CHL weekly and monthly awards. Robinson was named CHL Player of the Week 3 times, the first player to do so since Youngstown’s Jeff Christian during the 2006-2007 season. Brian Bicek also earned Player of the Week honors once. Gillis was twice named CHL Goaltender of the Week during his incredible January run, which also earned him the CHL Rookie of the Month and CHL Goaltender of the Month honors. Gillis’ partner between the pipes, Pier-Olivier Pelletier, was also named Goaltender of the Week once this season.
• Robinson and Gens both represented Evansville in the CHL All-Star Game in Arizona on January 11. Robinson had 2 assists and was +3 in the game, while Gens was held scoreless but was +2.
• The IceMen were twice ranked #1 in the bi-monthly CHL Coaches Poll this season. Wichita held the top spot in 5 of the 9 polls, with Fort Wayne and Allen also making a single appearance in the peak position.
• In the CHL’s annual “Best of the Best” survey, the IceMen claimed a Top-3 finish in 20 of the 50 categories, second only to the Allen Americans (21). Evansville’s Ford Center earned the #1 spot for Best Locker Rooms, Best Press Box, and Best Arena Concessions. The city’s new downtown sports shrine also claimed 2nd place in Best Arena, Best Ice Surface, and Best Arena Music.
• Robinson was quite possibly “the best of the Best of the Best” in the individual player awards, earning a trio of top spots and 7 nods overall. He was selected as Best Overall Player, Best on the Power Play, and Best Playmaker – the latter of which being the biggest landslide victory out of all 50 categories. Robinson also finished 2nd in the voting for Most Valuable To His Team, Best Leader, Best Stick-handler, and Best Player on Face-offs.
• Several other members of the IceMen were among those honored by their peers in the survey. Bicek won both Fastest Skater and Best Penalty Killer, the latter of which was the third-largest runaway win among the 50 awards. Gens was named both Best Offensive Defenseman and Best Body-checker. Kromm was #2 in the voting for Best Coach, Gillis was #3 in Best Goaltender In Shootouts, and Mike Sgroi was #3 in Best Heavyweight Fighter.
• Although the team’s on-ice improvements from last season to this season were quite impressive in their own right, the IceMen actually made their biggest upgrade at the box office. Evansville averaged 4882 fans per home game, 4th in the CHL and well above the league average of 4042. A year ago, the IceMen averaged just 1329 fans, last among the CHL’s 18 teams. Do the math, and that equates to a season-over-season increase of a whopping 367%!
• During the IceMen organization’s first three seasons at Swonder Ice Arena, the largest crowd was 1704. This season at the new Ford Center, the SMALLEST crowd was 2359 on a Tuesday night in January. That season-low was actually better than the AVERAGE attendance for 4 CHL teams – Laredo, Texas, Bloomington and Dayton.
• Last season’s total attendance (39,870) was surpassed this season before Christmas!
• The IceMen attracted a total of 161,121 fans this season – more than the Dayton Gems drew this season and last season combined.
• Evansville averaged a stellar 8107 over 5 Saturday home dates, including a pair of sellouts with more than 9400 fans in attendance.
• Perhaps most importantly, the IceMen were “trending upward” as the season progressed. Evansville averaged 4204 fans per game before the All-Star break, and 5448 fans per game after the All-Star break.
The Evansville IceMen were absolutely a much-improved team on the ice this season, a fact that played a big role in creating buzz around the community and generating excitement about hockey in Evansville. The city remains in its infancy as a hockey market, but everything is clearly moving in the right direction. Next season, the IceMen will hope to play in front of even larger crowds and maybe add another BIG bullet point to their list of successes – a playoff championship!