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Thursday, February 22, 2024

On the Move

Not even a minute into a mid-November hockey game at the new Ford Center and Terry Ficorelli’s cheeks already were damp. Adrenaline kept him on his feet. Ficorelli sat down only two times during the 20-minute breaks after the first and second periods. Even seated, Fic (as he is known) was moving. He rolled in his chair during the intermissions. Oblivious of his surroundings, he updated at-home listeners on the Evansville IceMen’s lead against the Dayton Gems.

As a radio broadcaster, Fic is focused. “The game is unique,” he says. “It’s the world’s fastest sport. You have to be very quick in your play-by-play descriptions.” With his headset on, he’s in full concentration, barely referring to the pile of notes strategically placed in front of him.

Once each break ended, Fic stood and readied his position as if a player himself. Although minor league hockey is just a few years old in Evansville, Fic is a seasoned professional hockey broadcaster who, despite his thorough notes, nearly had memorized every player’s statistics on the opposing team. When the clock started ticking, he looked only at the ice.

In 1973, 18-year-old Fic began his career in broadcasting at Michigan State University, his alma mater, calling games for the school’s hockey team. Over the next 38 years, the man now known as the “Voice” of the Evansville IceMen became a legend in the sport, going on to broadcast more than 3,300 consecutive hockey games. That is, however, not counting the play-by-plays he performed as a child for his parents in their Detroit living room, or the made-up games he created in the nooks and crannies of their old colonial home.

That early obsession foreshadowed his successful career, which took him and his voice out of his own living room and into the homes of thousands of strangers. He broadcasted for professional hockey teams such as the Kalamazoo Wings (1974-1985), the Adirondack Red Wings (1986-1987), the Baltimore Skipjacks (1987-1990), and the Cincinnati Cyclones (1990-1995) where he won Cincinnati’s “Best Sports Announcer” award three times. His longest tenure with a team was from 1995 to 2010 with the Muskegon Lumberjacks — called the Muskegon Fury until 2008 — in Michigan, where now skating across the ice at L.C. Walker Arena are junior-level athletes.

After a 50-year run as a professional hockey town, the people of Muskegon County, Mich., still are adjusting to the franchise change in 2010 that downgraded the Muskegon Lumberjacks to a Tier 1 junior ice hockey team. This is a county of 170,000 citizens who ate, slept, and breathed their professional Lumberjacks, a team Fic assumed he’d be with until retirement. Facebook pages, even more than a year after he left, still read “Keep Terry Ficorelli in Muskegon.”

After reported economic issues crippled the International Hockey League, the former Lumberjacks folded at the end of the 2009-2010 season, which coincided with a transfer of ownership to Lou and Josh Mervis, a father-and-son duo, who brought with them the younger athletes.
Fic then had a dilemma: Should he stay — he was offered a 42 percent pay cut to broadcast for the younger team — or should he go? “After all the years I had spent in the business,” Fic says, “and the time I had devoted to the franchise there, I just could not accept that.” On hearing the news about the folding team and the possible availability of a renowned broadcaster, IceMen owner Ron Geary made Fic a better offer.

After months of meetings and phone calls, Geary negotiated a deal to purchase the IHL franchise rights from Muskegon and upgrade his IceMen to the International Hockey League and the Central Hockey League — a change that came at the start of the 2010-2011 season. Along with two other familiar faces who had worked for the Lumberjacks — Kara Hillstead, director of game operations and promotions, and head coach Rich Kromm — Fic was invited by Geary to join the IceMen. All three accepted. “You can’t find this anywhere else in the United States,” says Geary. “They’ve brought a lot of wisdom and experience. We want to have the best professional hockey team in professional hockey.”

Throughout his career, Fic has been known mostly for his performances behind the microphone. He’s accumulated a lot of fans over the years that still follow his play-by-plays, including here in Evansville. The radio station that broadcasts the IceMen games, WEOA-AM 1400, also streams the games online. The station tracks who’s listening, and many are from his past markets in Kalamazoo, Cincinnati, and Muskegon. “It’s not so much that the IceMen have fans all over the country,” they told him, “but you do.”

Making the games more exciting isn’t the only part of Fic’s job. As the vice president of communications and broadcasting, the man has other responsibilities. During the season, which lasts from late October to the end of April, Fic gives a two-minute, daily IceMen update to 14 radio stations throughout the Tri-State. Every Monday night, he hosts the radio show “IceMen Live” from 7-9 p.m. on WEOA-AM 1400, often, he says, on zero to three hours of sleep depending on the previous weekend’s schedule.

On the weekend of the IceMen’s second home game (Nov. 13) at the Ford Center, for example, Fic had little time for sleep. Early Friday morning, he boarded the team bus bound for Dayton, Ohio, for back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday night. From there, he arrived back in Evansville at about 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, allowing him a few brief hours of shut-eye before preparing his broadcast for the 5 p.m. home game where more than 4,000 fans came in support. Although that was only half of the amount that filled the rows on opening night, the stands still roared with die-hard fans and first-time attendees wanting to be a part of the genesis of a tradition in a community that had never claimed to be a full-fledged hockey town. “It’s our responsibility as an organization to make the Evansville IceMen a part of the fabric of this community,” Fic says. “Perhaps it was preordained that I was supposed to come to Evansville and be a part of the exciting new Ford Center and a new franchise.”

A growing fan-base seems natural, especially when looking at the ice from the press box, where Fic let his enthusiasm consume him. He propped his left foot on the table, then on his chair, and then back on the table. His voice isn’t even half of it. “The vast majority of people know me as the voice of the team,” Fic says, “but there’s a lot more than that. That’s just one part of my job description.”

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