In a week, hockey gets to take center stage in the sports landscape, as the game’s best players converge in Sochi, Russia for the Winter Olympics’ centerpiece team sport.
Shortly thereafter the NHL season will begin its push toward the playoffs and professional sports’ most coveted and legendary prize.
While the sport often flies under the radar in Central Indiana, it’s a city with an interesting history of hockey dating back to 1939 — and almost-continuously since the arrival of the Indianapolis Racers in 1974.
Next year, Central Indiana becomes one of a few markets with two hockey teams, as the East Coast Hockey League Indy Fuel will commence play at the Fairgrounds Coliseum to join the Indiana Ice, who have played in the United States Hockey League for the last 10 years.
While the Fuel will not begin play until October, the Ice are in the midst of their 10th season, which continues with a home game Thursday at Pan Am Pavilion against Team USA, and returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Feb. 8. The Ice are currently leading the USHL’s Eastern Conference with a 22-6-6 record.
Central Indiana puckheads are both looking forward to the cornucopia of hockey that having two teams brings, but are also conflicted between the two.
As the squads prepare to ice teams, here’s a look at the two.
CAN IT WORK?
Two teams in a market can work, but it takes work. Des Moines is currently experiencing both the American Hockey League Iowa Wild and the USHL Buccaneers. In Omaha, the USHL Lancers, the AHL Knights and the NCAA’s University of Nebraska-Omaha teams shared a market for several years. The Lancers survived, the Knights moved after two seasons. In Chicago, the USHL Steel, the AHL Wolves and NHL Blackhawks have co-existed for years.
What’s the difference? The Ice play in the junior United States Hockey League, a league that features much of the top United States-born talent between ages 16-20. The USHL protects players’ amateur status to keep them NCAA-eligible. The majority of USHL players go on to college hockey, a few play in Canadian major junior, and from there, to the NHL or minor pro leagues. The Ice have been in the city for 10 years, and a team led by Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug and Washington Capitals draftee Stanislav Galiev won the USHL’s Clark Cup title in 2009.
The Fuel play in the ECHL, a professional league that is two steps below the National Hockey League. The ECHL’s mission is to develop players for the American Hockey League — the top minor league — and National Hockey League. ECHL players are often former college and junior players. The next step up for most is the AHL, which is one level below the NHL.
The USHL — where the Ice play — claims 213 alumni in the NHL. Former Ice players include Krug, Washington Capitals defenseman and current U.S. Olympian John Carlson and a handful of players — San Jose’s Daniil Tarasov, Nashville’s Anthony Bitetto among them — who are close to cracking NHL rosters. A handful of players on the current Ice team have already been drafted.
Among the top USHL alumni currently on NHL rosters are several U.S. Olympians — the Blues’ T.j. Oshie, the Canadiens’ Max Pacioretty, the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, the Avalanche’s Paul Stastny, the Jets’ Blake Wheeler and the Capitals’ Carlson. Also notable are the Islanders’ Thomas Vanek and Kyle Okposo, the Blackhawks’ Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, and the Blues’ Jaden Schwartz, as well as top-five pick Seth Jones of Nashville, who went straight from junior to the NHL.
The ECHL had 93 players on opening-day NHL rosters this season. Many of the best-known alumni are goaltenders, who need more development at each level and are fewer steps from the NHL as teams carry only five or six goalies in their systems — Jonathan Quick (Kings), Jaroslav Halak (Blues), Braden Holtby (Capitals), Tomas Voukoun (Penguins), Tim Thomas (Panthers), Mike Smith (Coyotes) and James Reimer (Maple Leafs) are among them. Among the top skaters who are ECHL alumni are the Blue Jackets’ Brandon Dubinsky and Mark Letestu, the Avalanche’s P.A. Parenteau, the Canadiens’ David Desharnais and the Rangers’ Dan Girardi. Quick is the only U.S. Olympian who has ECHL ties.
DIFFERENCE IN CALIBER OF PLAY?
The Ice’s USHL in has younger players — but not by much — but features a lot of high-end talent. Forty-one current or former USHL players were drafted in the NHL draft, including top-10 pick Seth Jones, now with the Nashville Predators. Seventeen of the 23 members of the U.S. Olympic Team have played at the USHL level. Most of those 23 players went directly from college or junior hockey to the NHL.
Imagine a league with the top high school seniors and college freshmen playing in a competitive league before going to college or being drafted by the NBA. That’s the role the USHL plays. Most games feature several NCAA and NHL scouts. Because of its role in developing American players, USHL teams are limited to four foreign-born players.
The Fuel’s ECHL generally features players ages 20-24. Only four “veterans” are allowed per team — players who have played more than 260 games (or about 3.5 pro seasons). Most ECHL teams have NHL affiliations, but that often amounts to four or five players from the NHL, whose teams are only allowed to sign 50 players — 23 of which stock an NHL team and another 20-23 to stock a team at the higher-level AHL.
The rest of the players — including the veterans — are free agents either trying to impress an NHL, AHL or European professional roster, or simply players who enjoy continuing to play hockey.
The USHL can claim to have more top-end talent — especially skaters, who usually either go directly from junior to the NHL or play a brief stint in the AHL.
With slightly older players, the ECHL can often claim more depth and feature NHL prospect goaltenders.
The Ice’s USHL is a 16-team circuit primarily based in the Upper Midwest, with teams in Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha and Green Bay, as well as several smaller cities. One of the teams is the United States national team development program, which represents the country in world junior hockey tournaments. The league is sanctioned by USA Hockey. The Fuel’s ECHL is a 20-team circuit — two steps below the NHL — that stretches from Florida to Alaska, with concentrations in the southeast, Midwest and west coasts. Nearby teams are in Fort Wayne, Cincinnati and Evansville.
The Ice currently split their schedule between two downtown buildings — Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Pan Am Pavilion. The Ice have played a handful of games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse every year of their 10-year existence. The Fuel will play at the renovated Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, which was completely rebuilt on the interior, and will seat approximately 6,000 fans.
USHL players are amateur, but have their equipment, travel, education and living expenses covered by their team. ECHL players make an average of $500-600 per week, per the league’s salary cap.
Andrew Smith is a Daily Reporter correspondent and author of “Indianapolis Hockey,” by Arcadia Publishing. Smith has also worked as public address announcer for the Indiana Ice. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.