Way Down on the Farm: Getting To Know the ECHL's Evansville IceMen

The Blue Jackets are entering Year 2 of their affiliation with the ECHL's Evansville IceMen. Here's everything you need to know about Evansville, the IceMen, and what's in store for the team this season.

The 2013-14 NHL season is now underway, and for the second straight year, the Blue Jackets' ECHL affiliate is the Evansville IceMen. Most of you are at least somewhat familiar with the Springfield Falcons (Columbus' AHL affiliate) but until now, The Cannon's IceMen coverage has been minimal - and I'm here to change that.

That's nice, but who the hell are you?

Glad you asked, imaginary reader. Name's Michael, but you can call me Shocker. (The nick is a play on my last name, and what most IceMen fans call me.) My username here is "IceMen Maniac" because that's what die-hard IceMen fans are known as. In fact, the booster club's official name is The IceMen Maniacs Booster Club.

I'm 32, married to a beautiful woman who loves hockey, and father of an amazing son who is quickly becoming a hockey fan himself even though he's not quite 2 yet. I grew up in Indianapolis and have lived in Evansville since 1999, and I have attended every home game in the (admittedly relatively brief) history of the IceMen.

I am the senior writer and webmaster of IceMenManiacs.com, which is both the online home of the booster club and the only (but we'll just say "best") independent IceMen blog on the web. In addition to IceMen analysis and feature stories, a ton of general information and an old-school message board, the site also offers a regular podcast about the IceMen, co-hosted by yours truly and the team's radio play-by-play guy, Derick Benigni.

After the renewal of the Columbus/Evansville affiliation was announced, I got in touch with The Cannon's Mike MacLean and offered to bring a little bit of Evansville and the IceMen to Blue Jackets fans. Mike graciously accepted my offer, so I will be providing you with monthly updates about the IceMen throughout the season. (Thus, if you don't like me, blame him!)

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm actually a St. Louis Blues fan. Have been since I was a kid. And if you think things have been rough for Columbus hockey fans, consider my plight - my NHL team has been around since 1967 and STILL hasn't hoisted the Cup.

I must admit, however, that given the Jackets' move out of the Blues' division and into the Eastern Conference, I will be rooting for Columbus this season. Not only is it a matter of pulling for the parent club, but it's also a case of genuine excitement about what is happening in Columbus under former Blues executives John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen. (And if there's any questioning my hockey chops, know that I actually spelled "Kekalainen" correctly without looking it up!)

I also have a lot of respect for the Blue Jackets fans who have continued to support the team through so many lean years. I've been to numerous games in both St. Louis and Nashville when the Jackets have been the visiting team, and I've always been impressed by how well Columbus fans travel.

Plus, it helps that as an IceMen fan, I feel a sense of kinship with fans who stick with their team despite on-ice struggles. In their 5 seasons of existence, the IceMen have finished in the basement 3 times and have only had a single season with a winning record. So I feel your pain.


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EVANSVILLE 101

Enough about me. Here are some things you should know about the home of your ECHL affiliate...

• Evansville is way down in the southwestern corner of Indiana, situated on a horseshoe bend in the Ohio River. We're actually the fourth-largest city along the Ohio. (The biggest is home to one of the five NHL teams always chosen for NBC broadcasts.)

• No, I don't know where the term "Hoosier" comes from either. Yes, I love the Colts and Pacers, and the Month of May is very special to me. And no, Indiana isn't just miles and miles of corn fields. We grow soybeans too.

• Evansville is only about a 5-hour drive from Columbus. Take I-71 through Cincinnati to Louisville, then hop on I-64 and go west for about 100 miles. Head south on either I-164 or US 41, enjoy a few more miles of corn fields agricultural diversity, and you'll know you're in Evansville when you hit a stoplight every 27 feet.

• Evansville's top riverfront attractions are the Tropicana Evansville casino and the LST 325. The former offers free parking, two hotels, nine on-site restaurants, and live entertainment 7 days a week. The latter is an actual World War II ship, one of the last surviving operational LSTs ("Landing Ship, Tanks") from the war. During the war, Evansville produced more LSTs than any other inland city. Today, the LST 325 (which doubles as a museum/memorial and offers regular tours) docks on the Ohio at the eastern edge of Downtown Evansville. So if Indiana ever decides to invade Kentucky, we're off to a good start.

• Downtown Evansville has plenty of other things to do and see as well. Catch some Demolition City Roller Derby action at the historic Veterans Memorial Coliseum, look for the "Grey Lady" ghost at the haunted Willard Library, or follow Millie the T-Rex to the 18,000 square foot Children's Museum of Evansville. You can also check out the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, the Evansville Museum Transportation Center (EMTRAC), and the Koch Planetarium (Indiana's oldest planetarium). Fans of trains will particularly enjoy EMTRAC, which features a large model railroad and the opportunity to tour 3 actual historic railroad cars - a Milwaukee Road steam engine from 1908 (the last of its type in the country), a Louisville & Nashville Railroad caboose from around 1900, and a fully-equipped L&N club car from 1926. The latter was used during Dwight Eisenhower's successful presidential campaign in 1952.

• The city also has a variety of other noteworthy attractions that aren't right on the river or in the heart of downtown. Bosse Field, built in 1915 and the fifth-oldest professional ballpark in America, is home of the independent Frontier League's Evansville Otters and was a primary filming location for many of the game scenes in A League of Their Own. Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden offers you a chance to visit the rain forest in its $13 million Amazonia exhibit, which features more than 150 animals. Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve contains the largest tract of virgin forest (over 190 acres) located inside any city limits in the United States. And about 40 miles from Downtown Evansville is the quaint little town of Santa Claus, the home of Holiday World. Yes, the town is actually named Santa Claus. I even got married there. Why are you laughing?

• Evansville's West Side Nut Club Fall Festival, held annually since 1924 during the first full week of October, is sometimes touted as the nation's second-largest annual street festival (behind only Mardi Gras) and often credited as America's best present-day source for brain sandwiches. Really. No joke here. I'm serious. Stop throwing up.

• The IceMen share an arena with the University of Evansville's Purple Aces, whose mascot is a turn-of-the-century riverboat gambler named "Ace Purple." Yes, we're that creative in Evansville. (How else do you think we came up with "IceMen" for a team of men playing a sport on ice?) Evansville is also home of the University of Southern Indiana (my alma mater), a perennial power in Division II men's basketball. The USI athletic teams are known as the Screaming Eagles, because the "name the team" contest was won by Craig T Nelson.


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ICEMEN 101

So, the hockey team. Here's some stuff you should know about the IceMen...

• For starters, I should clarify that "IceMen" (with the "M" capitalized) is indeed the correct typography. The team's primary logo has always had the "M" as one of the smallest letters, but the franchise has always used "IceMen" in all official capacities. But don't ask me why the logo's wordmark ends with a giant lower-case "n" because I don't get it either. Perhaps it was designed by the same person who makes the Blue Jackets' jersey nameplates.

• The IceMen franchise was born waaaaay back in 2008. I'll spare you the team history and just ask you to take a moment to read the IceMenManiacs.com "About the IceMen" section. Don't act like you've got something better to do right now. Your next online destination isn't going anywhere. Go on, I'll wait. It's not very long. (That's what she said.)

• Alright, now that you spent 2 minutes reading about the IceMen and another 15 minutes looking at kittens, I'll continue. The 2013-14 season will be Evansville's second in the ECHL and third at the Ford Center, which opened in the fall of 2011. The downtown arena seats a maximum of about 9400 for hockey, when the upper bowl (which is horseshoe-shaped like the 300 level at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena) is not curtained off. The $127 million Ford Center was designed by Populous, the same architectural firm that drew up Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park and Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium and Progressive Field.

• The IceMen team colors are navy, sky, and white. (Black and gray are not officially among the team's colors, despite their prominence in the logo.) The team's jersey suite consists of white (worn at home before the All-Star break), navy (worn at home after the All-Star break), and sky (the alternate "third" jersey) designs. If you checked out the jersey suite photo, you probably noticed that the sky and navy designs are ripoffs of tributes to the Pittsburgh Penguins' 2008 and 2011 Winter Classic jerseys.

• As mentioned before, IceMen fans are lovingly known as "Maniacs." The term came into use during the team's first season, when some of the die-hards started wearing facepaint and blue wigs to home games. (It's now a common practice.) Section 117 at the Ford Center, where many of the most enthusiastic fans sit at home games, has become known as "The Asylum." For its part, the booster club offers a free Home Game Chants & Taunts list and has sold thousands of miniature blue cowbells, the sound of which has become a trademark part of the atmosphere at IceMen games.

• The IceMen formerly used Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part 2)" as the team's goal song. Fans chanted "hey, you suck" and "we're gonna beat the puck outta you" to the beat. But then the organization changed the goal song because a few oversensitive (and apparently hard-of-hearing) newcomers thought "puck" was another much-nastier word and complained about it. The song switch remains a bone of contention among IceMen fans, so much so that many of the Maniacs now sing "RRP2" a cappella (complete with the "you suck" chants) after play resumes following each IceMen goal.

• If you want to come on over for a game, IceMen tickets are cheap. You can sit between the blue lines just 2 rows from the ice for a whopping $23, or behind the net (also as close as 2 rows from the ice) for just 15 bucks. Plus, parking is FREE if you don't mind walking a block or two. And ticket prices are the same for every game - there's no "dynamic pricing" for weekend or rivalry games, so it won't cost you a dime more to take in one of our 10 Saturday games.

• Like every successful minor league team, the IceMen offer a variety of promotional nights throughout the season. From giveaways to theme nights and everything in between, there's a little something for everyone. My favorite is the annual "Teddy Bear Toss," which will be Sat. Dec. 7 this season when the IceMen host the Toledo Walleye. (It's for a great cause - 911 Gives Hope, a local charity formed by first responders that delivers stuffed animals and toys to sick kids in hospitals during the holidays.) Another popular game is the annual "Pack the House Night" and "Star Wars Night" (Sat. Jan. 18), which always draws a large crowd and a disturbing number of fans dressed in full costume.

• Guys, if you need further incentive to visit Evansville, here you go. You can meet beautiful ladies like Levyn. She's one of the attractive young women who make up the Icicles, the official IceMen "promotional team." The Icicles can be found all over the Ford Center at every IceMen home game, usually alongside Blizzard, the polar bear mascot of the IceMen. They greet fans in the lobby before each game, hand out giveaway items, help conduct intermission and media timeout promotions and games, and occasionally make other appearances around the community as well. The Icicles even have their own Facebook page, if you'd like to "like" them. No stalking though!


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SEASON OUTLOOK

Let's hit the ice, shall we?

• After finishing in the Eastern Conference cellar last season, IceMen Owner Ron Geary shook things up by dumping Head Coach Rich Kromm after three seasons at the helm. His successor is Jeff Pyle, whose official title with the IceMen is Head Coach and Director of Hockey Operations. Pyle previously spent 12 seasons with the ECHL’s Mobile/Gwinnett franchise, making the playoffs 9 times – including a runner-up finish in the 2006 Kelly Cup Finals. He is #3 in ECHL history in both wins (446) and games coached (860).

• Pyle has repeatedly stated that he liked a lot of the pieces the IceMen had in place last season despite the team's poor record, and that he felt like a few key changes in the team’s leadership would have yielded much-improved results on the ice. True to his word, Pyle has built his 2013-14 team around returning young players while cutting ties with all of the 2012-13 team’s veterans.

• The IceMen attack will be led by power forward Josh Beaulieu, speedy sniper Dylan Clarke, and two-way center Jason Dale. Fellow returnees Matt Schepke and Patrick Kennedy will also bring some offensive punch to the party. Four reliable young defensemen will be returning as well - Aaron Gens, Donnie Harris, Matt Krug and Jake Obermeyer.

• Among the new faces vying for a roster spot are a pair of rookie forwards who joined Clarke and Dale in training camp with Springfield. Matthew Bissonnette had 239 points in 266 career games in the QMJHL, including 140 points in 112 games over the past two seasons. Peter Sakaris also had an impressive junior career in the QMJHL, with 137 points in 159 total games. Sakaris joined the Blue Jackets squad in this year’s Traverse City Prospects Tournament, and took full advantage of the opportunity by notching 3 points in 2 games played. The Columbus prospects went 2-0 with Sakaris in the lineup and 0-2 without him.

• The IceMen blueline could feature a trio of fresh faces, all of whom earned AHL camp invites. Rookie Loren Barron amassed 58 points and a +38 rating in 121 games during his final 3 seasons at 2013 NCAA Frozen Four Tournament runner-up Quinnipiac University. Dallas Earhardt brings size (6'4") and "AHL talent" (according to Pyle) after finishing his junior career with 65 points and 230 penalty minutes in 184 games during his last 3 WHL seasons. And Guillaume "Guy" Lepine comes to Evansville for his 6th pro season after spending the past 3 seasons in Europe. In 302 pro games, the 6'4" Lepine has just 71 points but has been quite a physical presence with 80 fights and 851 penalty minutes.

• In net, Pyle will depend on a goaltender who should be familiar to Blue Jackets fans. When Columbus decided against re-signing Allen York after his entry-level contract expired following last season, Pyle jumped at the chance to ink York to an ECHL deal. York played 11 games with Columbus as a rookie in 2011-12, and spent most of the 2012-13 campaign in Springfield. He also shook off some rust in Evansville during a brief rehab assignment, going 3-0-1 with a 1.87 Goals-Against Average and a .944 Save Percentage in his final four games before returning to the Falcons. If York can stay healthy this season, he should win a lot of games for the IceMen and provide added organizational depth in net.

• Pyle expects to receive 4 to 7 players from Springfield before the season begins for the IceMen on Oct. 19. Among those affiliate send-downs is likely to be goaltender Mike Clemente, who is under AHL contract with the Falcons. Last year, Clemente spent his rookie season on assignment in the CHL with the Missouri Mavericks, for whom he went 25-15-4 with a 3.25 GAA.

With training camp starting Friday, the IceMen roster is still in flux. Pyle said Monday that his lineup "will be changing," and he has insisted to fans that no player's job is safe. The new coach wants to play an up-tempo style, but players are expected to be accountable and play hard at both ends of the ice. Anyone who doesn't could be out of a job.

Bringing back so many players from a last-place team is obviously quite a risk, but a calculated one. IceMen fans must hope that Pyle's risk comes with great reward.


POSTSCRIPT

Evansville may not be a "sexy" city or affiliate, but it really is a nice place (I came here for college and loved it so much that I decided to stay here) and a rapidly-growing hockey market. In just the 5th season of pro hockey in Evansville, the IceMen averaged 5415 fans last season - over 1500 more than Springfield, believe it or not. So both on the ice and off, I think the Blue Jackets organ-I-zation and Jackets fans should be very happy with the IceMen as their ECHL partner.

I encourage all Columbus fans to come over for a visit sometime. The people here are incredibly friendly (sometimes to a fault), IceMen home games are a lot of fun and a great value, and there are plenty of other things to do around town while you're in the area. IceMen fans are excited about this affiliation and hopeful that it will evolve into a long-term relationship, and I hope Jackets fans feel the same way.

Before I wrap this up, I do want to recommend that you bookmark IceMenManiacs.com and "like" us on Facebook. In between my updates here at The Cannon, the Maniacs' online presence will keep you up to speed about Blue Jackets prospects in the ECHL and everything else IceMen.

And if you have any questions about the team or the city, feel free to drop me an e-mail (see the profile) or sound off in the comments. I'll be happy to help out however I can.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

IceMen Maniac is Michael Shockley, a.k.a. "Shocker" to IceMen fans
He is also the Webmaster and Senior Writer for IceMenManiacs.com

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