INDIANAPOLIS — Twelve thousand people gathered inside a premier arena, watching some of America’s top hockey players battle on a sheet of ice.
It’s not something one would have to drive to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit or Columbus for — but an annual event at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
This Saturday, the Indiana Ice will host their 10th annual “Pack the House for Charity” night. The evening annually draws the United States Hockey League’s biggest crowd of the year — upwards of 12,000 fans — to both enjoy an evening of hockey and support local charities.
Among the charities that will benefit are The Villages, Ronald McDonald House of Indiana and the Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at St. Vincent. The team also annually wears special uniforms designed by Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital patients.
For the Ice, it’s a twofold evening — a chance to play in front of a huge crowd, and one of many opportunities to give back to the community by supporting local charities.
“We’re nothing without the community and the people that watch. That’s not any different than when I played in the NHL,” said Ice coach Jeff Brown, who played 13 seasons for six NHL teams. “You can’t forget the No. 1 group of people, and that’s the fans. Without fans, there’s no sport. We’re very appreciative, and after that, the charities we’re helping out, it’s a win-win for everything. It’s an exciting night.”
The Ice — and the other teams in the USHL — have rosters mainly comprising of the top U.S.-born players up to age 20. Nearly all will go from the USHL to play college hockey — the league is an intermediary step between high school and college for elite players — and quite a few will eventually go on to the National Hockey League.
As a result, community service is a key part of the league’s — and the team’s — mission in developing players, which comes together with the ability to marry community service with a hockey came in an environment Brown called a “great atmosphere, great experience.”
“This is our 10th year with Pack the House,” Ice owner Paul Skjodt said. “It’s an opportunity for our franchise to tie into the local community. Not only with Pack the House, we do stuff all year long. For us, the more we can give back, it’s not just about our staff giving back, but our players, teaching them life lessons. They’re out in the community, too. Part of Pack the House is to get the whole organization, including the players, to give back to the community.”
On the rink, this year’s version of the Ice is a championship contender. The Ice enter the weekend with a 30-8-7 record and the top spot in the USHL’s Eastern Conference.
They’re hoping to make a run at the franchise’s second Clark Cup title — the national championship for United States junior hockey. The first championship came in 2009, a team led by current Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug.
“This year is similar to the team we had in ‘09 when we won it,” Skjodt said. “We don’t really have any superstars, but we’ve got a great coach, we have all the guys buying in, and they’re very close inside the dressing room, and we’ll never get outworked. I think our chances are as good as any team in the league this year. I’m very excited about what’s ahead of us.”
The Ice enter the weekend after a 5-4 win Sunday over the USA Hockey U18 national team — a squad that has 11 players rated in the top 50 draft prospects. In Sunday’s game, five different players scored goals. The Ice squad has shown solid balance — with eight players scoring between 10 and 19 goals on the season. The leading scorer is Scott Conway (19 goals, 24 assists), who will play collegiately at Penn State.
Three members of the Ice roster — Aidan Muir (Edmonton), Brian Pinho (Washington) and Sam Kurker (St. Louis) — have been drafted by NHL teams, and defenseman Josh Jacobs is ranked by the NHL Central Scouting Bureau as a top-50 skater for the upcoming 2014 NHL draft. Twenty-one Ice players have committed to play for NCAA Div. I colleges.
“It’s great hockey,” Brown said. “It’s as good as there is in the United States at this level. There’s guys here that are going to be playing in the show. That’s how good it is. Other than one or two guys, everybody’s going Div. I next year. All in all, it’s a great opportunity to showcase it.”
PACK THE HOUSE
What: Indiana Ice Pack the House for Charity night
When: Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Opponent: Chicago Steel
More information: Indianaice.com or (317) 925-4423