Yankees and Red Sox. Packers and Bears. Red Wings and Blackhawks.
Rivalries in sports develop for many reasons. Geographic proximity, frequency of head-to-head competition, heated moments during play, battles for championships.
They are not made overnight. It takes time to build a history and cultivate a true rivalry. Time may heal all wounds, but it also allows rivals to inflict more wounds.
Founded in 1952, the Fort Wayne Komets are one of minor league hockey’s most historic franchises. Only the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears have continually competed in the same city for a longer period of time. The Komets have won over 2300 regular season games, claimed 9 league playoff championships, retired 12 jersey numbers, and routinely finished near the top of all minor leagues in average attendance.
In their 60 years of existence, the Komets have established many rivalries. Teams in Saginaw and Flint have come and gone through the years. The Kalamazoo Wings still exist but currently do not play in the same professional league. The Indianapolis Ice and Muskegon Lumberjacks have been replaced by junior teams.
These days, one of Fort Wayne’s top rivals is the Evansville IceMen – a franchise that has existed for just 4 seasons, and only 2 in the same league as the Komets.
Although Evansville lacks the type of hockey history that Fort Wayne boasts, the IceMen immediately became a rival for the Komets when the teams began meeting on the ice during the 2010-2011 season.
It certainly didn’t hurt that the IceMen moved up to “Double-A” by officially taking over the defunct Lumberjacks professional franchise, complete with a coach and several players who already developed plenty of bad blood with the Komets while in Muskegon.
But beyond the inherited heat from the old Komets/Lumberjacks rivalry, IceMen/Komets was just a natural fit. As Indiana’s second and third largest cities, Fort Wayne and Evansville carry the proverbial torch for pro hockey in the Hoosier State.
(Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city, has not had a pro hockey team since the Ice switched from the Central Hockey League to the United States Hockey League in 2004. Excluding the Sun Belt, Indianapolis is the most populous city in either the United States or Canada that is not currently home to a professional hockey team at any level.)
Evansville and Fort Wayne are separated by less than 300 miles “as the crow flies.” As a result, the IceMen and Komets have met early and often during their brief time together.
The teams squared off 11 times during the 2010-2011 season, and 13 times during the 2011-2012 season. The latter season even began with the IceMen and Komets meeting in both teams’ home openers.
The series has been rather balanced on the scoreboard, with both teams enjoying their fair share of success. In the 24 meetings so far, Fort Wayne has won 13 and Evansville has emerged victorious in 11.
And when you combine competitive balance with frequent meetings, then sprinkle in a bit of long-term hatred between some of those involved, you get some nasty hockey. During the 2011-2012 season, the Komets and IceMen combined to earn 629 penalty minutes (more than 48 per game), rack up 53 fighting majors (over 4 per contest), and compile 9 game misconducts for good measure.
As you might expect, the on-ice bitterness has produced sweet results at the ticket window for both franchises. During the 2011-2012 season, the Komets attracted 14% more fans for Evansville games (8654) compared to all other opponents (7574), while the IceMen drew a whopping 41% more for Fort Wayne games (6327) compared to the rest (4494).
Evansville’s only two sellouts, along with the season’s third-largest home crowd, were all for games against the Komets. And two of Fort Wayne’s three largest crowds, including one of the Komets’ two sellouts, were for games against the IceMen.
Several times, large groups of fans hit the road to support their team in the rival’s “barn.” That in itself is not particularly unusual, even in the minors.
What is unusual, however, is what happens when the teams’ fans find themselves in the same place at the same time.
On the ice, the IceMen/Komets rivalry has rapidly developed into something fierce. But off the ice, it’s surprisingly, well, friendly.
Friendly? How can fans of true rivals be – gasp – FRIENDLY?!
The answer is simple: Social Media.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs have been rivals on the diamond since 1885. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens first begrudgingly shared the ice in 1917. The New York Giants and Washington Redskins first clashed on the gridiron in 1932.
Those rivalries, along with many others, are deeply rooted in history. They are quite literally “seasoned” by numerous seasons of play. Their depth is measured not in years, but in decades. Fans have passed on the hatred from generation to generation.
And they were all well-established rivalries long before home computers became common in the 1980s, the Internet exploded in the 1990s, and “social media” changed the way we communicate following the turn of the century.
Fifty years ago, a New York Rangers fan probably would have thought that a “blog” was something he could use to hit a Boston Bruins fan in the head.
While the battles between Fort Wayne and Evansville are very much becoming like a “traditional” rivalry on the ice, the off-ice side of the IceMen/Komets rivalry is unique because of the timing of its inception.
It is, quite possibly, the first pro hockey rivalry to be born and fostered during “The Facebook Era.”
Because of social media and its 24/7 nature, many of the teams’ most devoted fans are on a first-name basis – both within their own camps and “across enemy lines.” The anonymity is gone, replaced by a heaping helping of humanity. Also gone? The ease of developing a healthy hatred for the unfamiliar opposition.
That lady wearing the other team’s jersey is not just a mysterious fan of your fierce rival. She’s also a mom, a sister, a school teacher, an amateur photographer, and a fan of “The Big Bang Theory.” Also, she willingly shares her family’s “secret” recipe for a killer chicken pot pie, which you quickly tried out yourself because, well, you LIKE chicken pot pie. And you loved her recipe.
That guy wearing the other team’s hat is no longer merely a random supporter of the hockey team you hate. He’s also a husband, an uncle, a firefighter, a “car guy,” and the self-professed King of Trivia. Of course, you know you could beat him if you sat down together at the local watering hole and went head-to-head in Buzztime. And someday, you plan on doing just that.
Facebook has allowed each team’s fans to develop a tight-knit community in ways that were not possible in the past. It has also allowed fans to “mingle” with rivals away from the rink year-round. Many IceMen fans are members of “The Internet Jungle,” a Komets fan group. Likewise, a number of Komets fans are members of the “Maniac Asylum,” an IceMen fan group.
Together, fans of the IceMen and Komets truly put the “social” in “social media” during the 2011-2012 season. They used Facebook to organize pre-game tailgate parties (complete with street hockey games), set up “loser must wear the other team’s face paint at a future game” bets (and share photos of the loser “paying up”), and plan post-game gatherings at sports bars – including toasts “to Hoosier hockey!”
In an unscientific Facebook poll, nearly one-third (28%) of IceMen fans even said they were rooting for the Komets in the 2012 CHL playoffs after Evansville had been eliminated. And when the Komets claimed the championship, many “IceMen Maniacs” – including some who refused to actually “root” for the Komets – flocked to Facebook to offer their congratulations to the Fort Wayne faithful.
This cordial coexistence is not simply a product of Indiana’s famous “Hoosier Hospitality,” either. The state’s most famous college sports rivalry, that between the Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers, is anything but friendly. Whether in football or basketball or swimming or tennis, die-hard fans of one will never root for the other. Even mentioning such a preposterous idea would likely be grounds for immediate dismissal from campus.
No, the friendly nature of Hoosier hockey – at least, off the ice – is largely due to social media. How ironic that a mode of communication often deemed “too impersonal” has actually made rival fans seem so personable!
Thanks to social media, fans can really get to know other folks who follow their favorite team, creating a closer bond and an enriched fan base. And also thanks to social media, fans can stumble upon a startling reality – you actually kinda like some of the people who just happen to root for another hockey team.
The IceMen/Komets rivalry is admittedly still in its infancy. Over time, more on-ice incidents and high-stakes post-season meetings will surely add fuel to the fire. And when that happens, fans of the teams will likely stoke the flames on Facebook or Twitter or whatever else serves as the preferred online gathering place of the day.
And then they’ll figure out when and where they can meet to start a real fire and have a party. As long as somebody brings marshmallows – the jumbo ones, of course. Roast them long enough and they make great hockey pucks.