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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

On Thick Ice

Last April, Ron Geary joined his wife Linda, son Mark, daughter Wendy, a couple of grandchildren, and some family friends at Evansville’s Swonder Ice Arena. Also at the rink were more than 1,000 hockey fans attending the fifth game of the All American Hockey League’s best-of-seven championship series. The longtime Louisville businessman, who also owns horseracing track Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., remembers, “That was a very exciting evening.”

Exciting because this was Geary’s first chance to be the owner of a championship team. Exciting, too, because his IceMen — a team he bought two years ago — had a high-powered offense that already had scored 25 goals in the first four games of the series to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. The fledgling team even took two games from their opponents, the West Michigan Blizzard, on that team’s home ice in Muskegon.

The Icemen needed four more goals in game five to win the Davidson Cup, the trophy for the Single A hockey league. Geary was all smiles, but he wasn’t the only fan: “Our average attendance was more than most of the other teams put together (in the AAHL),” says Geary. Inspired by the outpouring of support from fans in the IceMen’s second season, Geary made moves in the off-season to aim higher with his championship-caliber hockey players. This October, the team debuts as a Double A franchise.

The departure of the Muskegon Lumberjacks from the International Hockey League left an opening for a new team. The IHL merged into the Central Hockey League to form an 18-team, Double A league. Geary secured the IceMen a spot to play with teams across America. “It was a combination of being in the right place at the right time,” Geary says. “Because of the attendance here, our support, and the commitment to try and build a first-class program, we were adopted to be the official expansion team.”

With Muskegon out of the IHL, Geary bought the players’ contracts and hired Terry Ficorelli, the longtime voice of the Muskegon franchise, to be the IceMen’s vice president of communications and broadcasting. He’ll be the radio play-by-play announcer, work in media relations and publicity, and assist in corporate sales. The mustached, well-dressed Ficorelli has a fervent following, and 300 people joined a Facebook page dedicated to voice support to keep Ficorelli in Michigan.

The passionate Muskegon fans know Ficorelli brings with him a part of the 50-year tradition of a hockey-happy town. “Bringing the Muskegon history to Evansville creates instant credibility to the IceMen organization,” said Dennis Hextall, the IHL commissioner, during the summer. That history helps make the IceMen feel more familiar than a typical expansion team would.

Geary also drew Rich Kromm to Evansville to act as the general manager and coach of the IceMen. The 46-year-old Kromm, a veteran professional hockey coach and player, led the Muskegon Lumberjacks to a 51-20-5 record last year, and they were the IHL’s regular-season champions. Kromm played more than 400 games in the National Hockey League with the Calgary Flames and the New York Islanders. His hockey enthusiasm comes from his late father, Bobby, a former head coach for the Detroit Red Wings and a onetime NHL coach of the year. “This represents a great opportunity to build a strong foundation for a successful organization that we hope will be here for many years to come,” Kromm says.

“He knows the game, has a great record, and is passionate about hockey,” Geary says. “If you’re going to move into Double A, you want to come in as first class as you can. With a lot of expansion teams, it usually takes several years to get competitive.”

Geary, the former president and chief executive officer of Louisville-based human service company ResCare, believes Kromm and Ficorelli shorten the time needed to become competitive. But, most importantly, that competitive spirit comes from Evansville fans, whom Geary credits for faithful support the last two years. “As we moved through the first year, we found we had all kinds of rabid hockey fans, and it made for some good hockey in Evansville,” Geary says. “We tried to get some first-time hockey fans, and they ended up coming back many times.”

That Evansville is a hockey hotbed seems apparent for a number of hockey owners. The new 11,000-seat arena under construction in Downtown Evansville has received several proposals from leagues and teams, including the IceMen, that are interested in being the home team for the stadium expected to open in late 2011. Among them are the Double A, 20-team East Coast Hockey League; the 16-team United States Hockey League for college-bound athletes; and the 26-team, junior hockey North American Hockey League.

Swonder Ice Arena remains the IceMen’s home this season, and with the changes he made this year, Geary expects the IceMen fan base to grow larger. “I really think the citizens of Evansville and western Kentucky will fall in love with the IceMen,” Geary says. “The level of play is very exciting. I’m sold on it.”

For more information on the Evansville IceMen’s season, visit www.centralhockeyleague.com.

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