Is There Really Hockey in Indiana?
The tension mounts as the teams line up at the face-off circle. The two centers line up directly across from each other, the referee skates in. As this happens, the crowd begins to cheer and stand — some at the insistence of the PA Announcer, others because they know hockey etiquette. The referee raises the puck to his chest and thrusts it downward, releasing it. The game has begun.
Can such a scene really happen in Indiana? Why, yes: even in Indiana — “The Crossroads of America”, America’s corn playground, Home of the Indianapolis 500 — hockey exists, like it or not. Of course, it is widely known that Indiana is basketball crazy, watch “Hoosiers” or look at the Indiana University basketball teams of old. Football is also gaining ground, but only because of the recent success of the Colts and a certain gentleman named Peyton Manning.
To think of hockey in Indiana violates common sense — doesn’t it? Hockey is thought of as a sport played in the harshest of places — you know, Canada, the northern United States — those places where winter lasts for over half the year. Where March means that people are getting out their lighter winter coats, not their spring jackets.
Nearly three minutes into the game, the crowd gets the first taste of the power play; unfortunately, the team with the “man advantage” is the Fargo Force, not the Indiana Ice. With the Ice serving time in the box for High Sticking, Fargo show their might; the Ice Penalty Kill is floundering. Fargo does not score on this Power Play. Instead, they shake the confidence of the Ice.
At this point, the crowd becomes restless. Only three minutes into the game and already people begin speaking and carrying on conversations; some even pull out their phones to text or play video games.
The first goal of the game is scored five-and-a-half minutes into the first period. Once again, Fargo is the attacker, bringing the attention of the crowd lower than before. People begin to come and go as they please, some going to get concessions, others to the restrooms.
It is not until seven minutes into the game that the Ice get the crowd back into it. Fargo commit a Hooking penalty, and the Ice are now a man up. Unfortunately, the Ice squander their opportunity and even allow Fargo to get some shorthanded shots on goal.
This thought process regarding hockey is understandable. Hockey was created in Nova Scotia in the early 19th Century. It is believed that Canadians adapted ball-and-stick games to work on the ice sheets in Canada. This first game was known as “shinny”. Shinny is still played today by people (especially children) who don’t want to buy, or cannot afford to buy, hockey equipment. Over time, this game evolved into modern-day ice hockey; the “birthplace” of the indoor game being Montréal, Québec, Canada.
Those times have passed; places not even in the northern United States have thriving hockey teams. For example, Tampa, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Charlotte, North Carolina all have successful hockey teams.
Imagine this: people in Phoenix, Arizona fought to save their hockey team from being moved to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. This prompted the National Hockey League (NHL) to step in and buy the team to prevent that.
Even the NHL’s Stanley Cup winner in 2007 came from the most unlikely place: Anaheim, California — the well-known Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now known simply as the Anaheim Ducks, after Disney sold them). Are these cities examples of the perfect winter wonderland...?
Despite some hard fighting during the middle of the first period, the Ice are unable to make anything of it. The crowd becomes restless, as people come and go, and conversations become more apparent. It all comes to a head at fourteen-and-three-quarter minutes into the first period, as the Ice get called for Interference.
With the Ice serving time in the “sin bin”, Fargo again show their power play prowess and make the Ice look like middle school players. This time, however, Fargo capitalize on the power play and score a goal.
The remainder of the period is good, hard-fought hockey. Fargo has a bit of an advantage — they are more physical with their checks, more accurate with their passes, and more prolific with their shots. The crowd becomes more apathetic toward the game.
How does all of this relate to Indiana? Well, if LA, Anaheim, Tampa, and Charlotte have NHL teams (and logically, therefore, a hockey community) and Phoenix fought to save theirs, why should Indiana be any different? A hockey fan stated that Indiana does, in fact, have a hockey community; it is just “underground”. One spurred on by the existence of no less than four teams that play in front of paying fans: the University of Notre Dame, the Fort Wayne Komets, the Indiana Ice, and the Evansville Icemen.
This group/community of fans are not the same as fans in Michigan or Minnesota. Rolf Schafer, a hockey fan, stated: “There it is a religion that people abide by. Here in Indianapolis, not as many people are involved with the sport because there isn’t any major affiliation except to the Indiana Ice.”
Located in the heart of the state, Indianapolis, the Indiana Ice play their games in the Pepsi Coliseum on the Indiana State Fairgrounds. A developmental team for late-teenage, early twenties players, the Ice are affiliated with the United States Hockey League (USHL). During the 2008-09 season, large crowds witnessed their wonderful season, which culminated in winning the Clark Cup (USHL Championship). In fact, the Indiana Ice also have enough might to push Indiana’s professional basketball team, the Indiana Pacers, out of their home stadium occasionally during the season.
After the first intermission, the teams come back onto the ice the same way they entered the dressing rooms. The Force just go where they please and do what they please. They score their third unanswered goal just three minutes into the second period. Fargo look like they will run away with the game.
The crowd can feel it, too, as those who have returned to their seats, return to their phones to text, or their conversations.
The Ice apparently do not get the message the crowd is trying to send, as they begin to better their game. They force Fargo into a penalty just two minutes later. Although they cannot make anything of the power play, the Ice can finally assert they are actually present at the game!
This lack of “religion” means that fans of hockey in Indiana are, unlike football or basketball fans, harder to spot. Football and basketball fans wear their team shirts or jerseys; hockey fans wear Canadian or United States hockey apparel. In addition to old Indianapolis Ice logos, Racers items can be found in the stadium and parking lot.
After much fighting, the Ice finally break through! They are able to outsmart Fargo’s goalie, his only error to this point. The crowd finally realizes that the Ice are in the game! For the first time since the opening face-off, the crowd pays attention to the activities on the ice.
However, this would not last for long. Merely fifty seconds later, two players attempt to fight — Ice player Will Aide and Force player Oleg Yevenko. The two players did not fight long and both received two minutes in the “sin bin” for game misconduct/delay of game.
The fight enthuses the crowd, but the penalties irritate them. While Fargo and Indiana play four-on-four, the crowd pays some attention. With this new attention, the Ice show signs of life, even getting another power play after Fargo commits a tripping infraction. It has taken over half the game, but the Ice look alive.
However, this new fire does not last long. By the 19th minute of the second period, the fire is extinguished. The Ice become as cold as their name, committing another penalty, and give the momentum right back to Fargo.
Though it may seem improbable, hockey has a very rich history in the city of Indianapolis, stretching all the way back to 1939. The first recorded hockey team to ever call Indianapolis home were the Indianapolis Capitals. Playing all of their games in the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, the Capitals were the closest that Indianapolis ever got to hosting an NHL team — they played in the American Hockey League (AHL), a feeder series to the NHL. The Capitals were a proving ground for Detroit Red Wings players.
Twice the Capitals won the Calder Cup, the AHL’s championship. Their first championship came in 1942, when they beat the Hershey Bears — still an active AHL franchise. They won the Calder Cup again in 1950 when they beat the Cleveland Barons. Sadly, the Capitals ceased operations after the 1951-52 season.
Indianapolis would not host another team for eleven years. However, Fort Wayne was gifted a hockey franchise the same year Indianapolis lost theirs. In 1952, the Fort Wayne Komets began hockey operations. The Komets have not looked back since then. In fact, the Komets are behind only the “Original Six” Teams of the NHL — Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montréal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs — and the Hershey Bears of the AHL as the hockey team that has played the longest in the same city with the same name without interruption.
While Fort Wayne’s hockey story has been one of longevity, Indianapolis’ has not. In 1963, Indianapolis got their second hockey team — the Indianapolis Capitols. This team lasted only nine games before moving to Cincinnati, because of a tragic explosion in the Indiana State Fair Coliseum. It would take Indianapolis another nine years to get a hockey team. The Indianapolis Racers began operations in the World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1974, playing in the Market Square Arena. Unfortunately, the Racers lasted only four years, but they have the distinction of being the first professional team to sign Wayne Gretzky — now known in the NHL as “The Great One” — and Mark Messier, two NHL superstars. However, neither player lasted very long: Mark Messier was released just a few games into the 1978-79 season; Wayne Gretzky was sold to the Edmonton Oilers WHA team (who joined the NHL in 1979), to try to help the Racers from going bankrupt. Despite their best efforts, the Racers folded on December 15, 1978. This preceded the WHA’s bankruptcy in 1979.
The city’s excitement for hockey didn’t die with the Racers. The Indianapolis Checkers skated into the public eye at the start of the 1979-80 season. They became the first hockey team to play at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum since the explosion in 1963. A minor-league affiliate to the then-successful New York Islanders, the Checkers went on to win the Central Hockey League (CHL) championship in 1982 and 1983. Despite those early successes, the Checkers faltered, and, after switching affiliations to the International Hockey League (IHL) in 1984, moved to Denver in 1987.
With the arrival of the 1988-89 season, the Indianapolis Ice became the new tenants at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum, which was renamed the Pepsi Coliseum during the Ice’s tenure. The Ice were incredibly successful, winning two league championships, and several division championships, in the fifteen seasons they resided in Indianapolis. For a short time, they were even minor-league affiliates to the nearby Chicago Blackhawks. The Ice’s successes led to a great rivalry with the (“evil”) Fort Wayne Komets.
However, even this franchise would not remain in Indianapolis. They disbanded after the 2003-04 season leaving no trace, and only the name and the current USHL team. The Indiana Ice, in the United States Hockey League (USHL), have been Indianapolis’ hockey team since the Indianapolis Ice folded. In the six years they have existed, the Indiana Ice have won one championship, and have helped two players make their mark in the NHL. Many more alumni players are making names for themselves in the NCAA, while working their way to the NHL.
With a penalty lingering over their head as they enter the third period, the Indiana Ice return to the pond. They start out playing well, and only a minute-and-a-quarter into the period, they get a break. The Force lose their 5-on-4 advantage, as one of their players is called for Slashing. The Ice, however, fall back into their lacklustre play and cannot take advantage of the 4-on-4 situation, nor even the man advantage after their penalty expires.
Hockey may be alive in Indiana, but who are these fans? Do they just spend all their time watching hockey? Or do they play it, too?
A check of the website of USA Hockey, the association that organizes hockey in the United States, shows there are 9 hockey organizations or teams that participate in a regular season within 100 miles of Indianapolis. So, there are opportunities for people to play hockey. Several high schools are included in this list, allowing high school students the option of playing hockey.
An interesting note, however, is that the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) does not consider hockey to be a sport worth sanctioning, and therefore, the majority of Indiana high schools do not offer organized hockey to their students.
This question appears to be one to spark debate amongst hockey fans in Indiana. Schafer stated: “To make hockey more competitive here in Indiana, I believe it should be sanctioned by IHSAA.”
Long-time fan Karen Beaver said: “Sure! They sanction volleyball and track, why not? I think hockey is more a team sport than the others. One person cannot be the star, it takes the whole team. You want to teach teamwork to kids, why not?”
The strongest opinion on this was held by Cornelius Carter, a fan since the late 1980s, who stated: “We have college teams and a college-prep team already, and it’s more of a team sport than, say, football or basketball because you can have a star on basketball or a quarterback and his favorite wide receiver doing most of the playing. Whereas you don’t have a star on hockey, except maybe the goalie; and if he’s seeing it most of the time, they’re not doing their job. I mean if they’re going to fund athletics, they need to fund the ones people are interested in playing.” Carter likened the possibility of the IHSAA not sanctioning hockey due to a lack of players to markets pulling food after a short trial period and claiming that not enough customers bought it.
If hockey were sanctioned by the IHSAA, this would mean that the IHSAA would officially recognize any high school hockey club that wanted to form. In addition to other benefits, hockey players would be able to participate in state tournaments as well as get recognized by college scouts, or even those in the USHL and NHL.
After the missed opportunity on the power play the Ice completely fall apart. Despite a Fargo penalty around 5 minutes into the period, Indiana allow Fargo to control the puck. The puck splits its time between the neutral zone and Fargo’s attacking zone. Invited, Fargo scores a goal at 13:32 in the third period, shattering the Ice. Two more frustration penalties are assessed to the Ice, leaving them chasing Fargo and the puck. The game ends. The Ice lose 4-1.
The true fans can be seen during the third period. People begin texting about half-way into the period, as it becomes obvious that the Ice will lose. Additionally, those who are not texting are conversing with friends/other attendees. Only the true fans are watching the on-ice action.
By five minutes remaining in the final period, people begin leaving, with Fargo up 4-1. Starting out small, the amount grows after the Ice take their double penalties — two players, both for delay of game. The people flowing out are like a small stream.
The majority of the non-fans who do remain prepare to leave with thirty seconds remaining in the game and they leave the rink as the final horn sounds. The true fans remain — and admonish their family/friends to do the same — to watch the Indiana Ice salute their fans. The players circle around center ice, slap their sticks on the ground three times, and raise them in the air — all to the cheers of the fans, only a small portion of the crowd, remaining. After the salute, the fans leave.
As the fans leave their conversations lament the loss of the Ice. However, at least one fan saw the beauty of the game of hockey by stating: “It was still a good game.”
This article is copyrighted by Kyle Gottfried; do not reproduce without written permission.
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