If we’re being totally honest here, and I am certainly striving to be that, this book is the result of a little bit of guilt. The best way to explain that, I think, is to tell you how I got into hockey and this team.
Neither of my parents watched any hockey when I was really young. Nobody else I knew in Covington knew or cared anything for hockey. Everything I knew about hockey came from glimpses of it in TV shows and movies. I wish I could say I had more reality based knowledge, but I didn’t have any real choice in the matter. We didn’t have satellite TV until I was in middle school, so no ESPN or anything like that was going to bring hockey into my house. And even if I’d wanted to, the nearest NHL team to us, the Blackhawks, didn’t broadcast their home games anyway. For most of my childhood, hockey was more of a vague idea than something I would really be into.
Something did finally flip a switch for me, and for my brother. Again, I wish I could say it had a more realistic basis, but that would be a lie. No, what opened up the world of hockey to us was video games. We had a game for the Sega Genesis to go along with all our different baseball games, and suddenly the NHL become something more than a theory to us. It was also around that same time DirecTV came into our lives. The glimpses of real hockey were still brief, but they were there, and it was something we could put to our video game hockey. It was enough.
But, as I’m sure anybody can tell you, hockey is a game that is best experienced live. And as luck would have it, the neighboring “big town,” Danville, Illinois, had just gotten a new team. Danville has had hockey off-and-on throughout the life of the Palmer Arena, and that history is probably worth a book of its own. It’s certainly worth a blog post, which I have already written. But, for all the teams Danville had, it was the Danville Wings that really hit the town during my developmental sweet spot, and it was a team that captured Danville’s attention in a way hockey certainly never has since. And maybe not ever before. I couldn’t tell you for sure, I wasn’t really around for the Saints or the original Dashers.
My dad worked in Danville for an awfully long time. One of the nice things about the company he worked for was it supported the community teams well. This meant there were always Danville Dans games to go to, which was the summer collegiate team. When the Wings came to town, that meant there were free hockey tickets, too. My dad doesn’t watch or particularly know anything about hockey now, and certainly didn’t then, either. But he also wasn’t about to pass up free tickets to any sport. So away we went to the games.
It was mesmerizing and opened up my young mind to a whole world I had never really considered before. I don’t know why I never put it together before in my head. I was already a huge fan of and pretty knowledgeable about lower league baseball, between the aforementioned Dans and the Indianapolis Indians, whose games we also went to fairly regularly. But hockey? I didn’t realize there was such a thing, and especially not right in my backyard. If there was going to be lower level hockey, I would have thought you’d have to go to Canada. Or at least Wisconsin. But, no, there were the Wings, battling it out in the NAHL (and later USHL) just ten or fifteen minutes away.
It started out with the free tickets, but eventually we would just go now and then because it was fun. Especially once I got a little older and had my own money (and transportation) to go. But just as I was able to have the freedom to watch hockey more or less whenever I wanted, it was snatched away from me.
Indianapolis came calling, and the pockets there were much deeper than anybody’s in Danville. The Indianapolis Ice, the AAA and later AA team, had moved away. There wasn’t that big of a draw for hockey in Indiana. But, while the city maybe didn’t have the interest for minor league hockey, there was enough of a following for a junior league team. And of all the teams they could have lured away, they targeted Danville’s team. And the team sold and quickly became the Indiana Ice.
I was distraught. The Wings had gone from being one of the top draws in a struggling city that could really use the distraction to being an afterthought in an otherwise professional, major American metropolis. It didn’t sit right with me. It felt wrong, it felt cheap, it felt petty that my hockey team would be moved. I wouldn’t say ripped away from me. I was about to start at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. From there, Indianapolis and Danville were about the same distance away. Still, I had resolved as soon as they moved that the Ice were dead to me. Wings forever!
I stayed committed to Danville hockey for some time. I even went to a few Danville Pounders games. To call that hockey, as my good buddy Nelson Barre can attest to, would be insulting to the game. The final scores of those games typically fell somewhere in the 22-17 range. But still made it to a few of those games. And I still actively refused to attend an Ice game, even though I knew the level of hockey was much better than what I was subjecting myself to in Danville.
Time, though, as it’s said, heals all wounds. The Pounders came and quickly went. I found myself working in Danville for a time, and a new team reprising the old Dashers name came to town about the same time as I was leaving. I said I would make it to a Dashers game. I still haven’t. I did, however, go to an Indiana Ice game with my brother in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Ice lost, but it was undeniably a fun time, and the hockey was much more in line with what you think of when it comes to hockey. He had been to quite a few Ice games by that point, both in the part-time home of Bankers Life, and more in their more comfortable surroundings in the Pepsi Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
As it turns out, that was the only Ice game I ever attended, though I had clearly softened my stance at that point. Clearly Danville had moved on. After they had the Pounders, they had the Inferno for a few seasons before they, too, bolted to Indianapolis. The Inferno, incidentally, was pretty good hockey, and Danville drew well even though the team was constantly a bottom feeder. The new Dashers are still kicking. It was time for me to move on, too.
The Ice, however, are no longer with us. The hockey people of Indianapolis have moved on as well. Junior hockey is great, that much is clear. But as I’ve mentioned, Indianapolis is a big city with professional taste. The Ice could no longer hold the city’s attention. Thus the Indy Fuel has been born, playing in the AA-level ECHL. It should be a great fit. The team has poured an awful lot of money into renovating the venerable old Coliseum. There are ready-made rivals in the league already residing in Fort Wayne and Evansville. With professional hockey coming back, there wasn’t room for the Ice any longer. They filed for dormancy starting next season, and it has been granted.
They did not leave the USHL quietly, though. In their final season, they went out as champions. You can’t ask for much more than that. For all their years in Indianapolis, the Ice only missed the playoffs twice, and they captured the Clark Cup twice as well. And I stubbornly and singularly held on to my grudge for virtually all of it.
I feel bad about it, especially now that the team is gone. If I’m going to hold any grudge, I suppose it should be at the Fuel. But I don’t. I’m sure I’ll check out some of those games. It was inevitable, I feel. But in the wild world that is low-level sports, it seems a shame to just let this team pass into history forgotten. If I can do anything to atone for my self-imposed exile, I can at least do this much. From the 12-win Western Michigan Wolves back in 1988 to the Clark Cup Champion Indiana Ice in 2014, this is the complete history of the franchise. I hope you find it every bit as enjoyable and informative reading it as I did researching and writing it.