November 15, 2018
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Men of Ice

Professional hockey grows the sport for youth and engages the community
Canadian Josh Beaulieu, a forward for the IceMen, is a crowd favorite during the team’s home games at the Ford Center.

Who are the best sports fans? The question is as old as sport itself, with every sport and municipality claiming to have the best fans. In Evansville, the question might be answered by following the clang of cowbells to the Ford Center between October and April.

Dixie Halber and her army of fans in the IceMen Maniacs Booster Club have supported — both on and off the ice — the hometown ice hockey team since Halber founded the club in 2008 after attending her first game. “I was hooked,” says the Portsmouth, Va., native who is a full-time student studying graphic design at the University of Southern Indiana. Now, the Maniacs have more than 80 members, and this cowbell-ringing, chanting, blue-wig wearing group is hard to miss.

Ron Geary, Kentucky businessman and owner of Ellis Park thoroughbred racetrack in Henderson, Ky., since 2006, took a leap of faith when he brought professional hockey to Evansville in the summer of 2008. The IceMen, a minor team under the All-American Hockey Association, opened for its first season at Swonder Ice Arena on Oct. 14, 2008. Last year, playing at the Ford Center for its second season there, the Ice Men were granted an expansion membership into the ECHL (formerly known as East Coast Hockey League). With 25 years on the ice, the ECHL is the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.

According to Luke Burket, vice president of sales and marketing for the IceMen, Swonder lacked the professional level atmosphere because it was too small to hold crowds that professional hockey teams require to be successful. All of this changed when the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development approved the construction of the Ford Center in Downtown Evansville. “When we became a co-tenant with the University of Evansville Aces, we knew we had a pretty strong foundation,” Burket says. The IceMen embraced the challenge of filling the Ford Center’s 9,400 seats (capacity for ice hockey).

Halber believes the IceMen franchise has grown to be part of the community that everyone wants to be a part of. “People involved with the Maniacs feel like they are really giving back to the community,” she says. Burket says the Maniacs are the backbone of IceMen hockey. “They bleed blue,” Burket says. “They are who we owe a lot of credit to for keeping this franchise around here.”

The IceMen Maniacs hold a variety of fundraisers throughout the year and sell cowbells and IceMen merchandise to support the team. They provide food at games and also purchase household items for the players. The booster club also hosts a team holiday party every year.

While diehard hockey fans attend for the thrill of the game, other spectators come out to the ice for family fun. “We know Evansville is a family-focused community, so a lot of our efforts have been family driven, “ Burket says. Fans watch the hockey, but the IceMen provide the entertainment. The franchise engages the crowd — and local sponsoring businesses — with promotions, performances, prizes, giveaways, and a chance to appear on the big screen over the ice. “There have been some difficult seasons, but people come and they are entertained,” Halber says. “It’s that atmosphere and experience that keeps people coming back.”

“It’s an experience more than it is about the team’s record,” Burket says.

Jeff Pyle, head coach and director of hockey operations in his first season with the IceMen, enjoys Evansville’s unique market. “We have great fans who are hungry for a winner in the East Coast Hockey League and, on top of that, one of the best arenas in the league.” Pyle was persuaded by owner Geary to lead the IceMen after he launched the ECHL expansion team, the Gwinnett Gladiators, in Duluth, Ga.

Community involvement has been a hallmark with the IceMen since their inception. Players visit local schools to read with students and have recently adopted an anti-bullying campaign. IceMen can be seen at festivals, fairs, and other events in the Tri-State. Local dance teams and choirs are given the opportunity to perform during hockey game intermissions, further engaging the community in the local hockey culture.

“We make sure that our faces are seen out in public at many great promotional events that are always fun and exciting for our fans to attend,” says Joshua Beaulieu, a third-year team member and a forward for the Icemen from Comber, Ontario, Canada. “Our fans show up for us, so we show up for our fans.”

“Since day one, the focus has been on the community,” Burket says. “We’ve made it a focus to get out in the community compared to just expecting people to come to us.”

The IceMen also have had a substantial impact on the Evansville Youth Hockey Association. The two organizations work together to promote both organizations and grow hockey in Evansville. Established more than 30 years ago, the Evansville Youth Hockey Association now has about 400 youth members. Craig McDonald, youth hockey director, thinks it’s possible to increase that number to 500 by August 2014. “Our involvement with the IceMen has made hockey more topical in Evansville, exposing people to the game who may have never seen it before,” he says.

The Youth Hockey Association, meanwhile, assists with sales for the IceMen’s Chuck-A-Puck Program. A portion of sales benefit youth hockey, helping to purchase equipment for children whose families cannot afford to buy it on their own. Winter and spring leagues are offered, as well as various clinics throughout the year. “The partnership between EYHA and the IceMen helps to build hockey fans for life,” McDonald says.

Burket says the IceMen consistently outperform other teams in the ECH in group sales, a record the team also held in their prior league, the Central Hockey League. The IceMen play in the fourth smallest market in the league, but the team still ranks in the top five for season ticket sales, Burket says. Other cities within the league include Atlanta, Orlando, and Las Vegas. “This speaks volumes about our community wanting to support us,” Burket says.

Pyle, the team, the fans, and the entire IceMen staff are excited about the 2013-14 season and have set the bar for success high. “We are all motivated and focused on the same goal — to win games, night in and night out,” Beaulieu says.

Pyle says the strongest qualities of the team are its leadership, speed, and size. “Our goal is to be the hardest working team in the East Coast Hockey League and to play a smart-enough game that will give us a chance to win every night,” Pyle says. “We are a much younger and harder working team than last year, and I think the chemistry on this team is as good as I have ever had.”

At press time, the IceMen, who opened the season Oct. 19, led the ECH North Division with a 3-0 record.

For more information about the Evansville IceMen, call 812-250-7025 or visit evansvilleicemen.com; on the IceMen Maniacs, icemenmaniacs.com; and for the Evansville Youth Hockey Association, visit eyha.us/league.

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