While the Evansville IceMen are still owned by Ron Geary, who has been at the helm of the IceMen since the team began play in 2008, the current IceMen Central Hockey League franchise is technically not the same as the IceMen team that played in the All-American Hockey League during the organization’s first two seasons. Officially, the IceMen “moved up” from the AAHL to the CHL not as an expansion team, but as a relocated Muskegon Lumberjacks franchise. Following the 2009-2010 season, the Lumberjacks’ owners opted to leave professional hockey and take the Lumberjacks name to the United States Hockey League, an amateur “Junior-A” circuit. Geary purchased the team’s professional franchise rights, including existing player contract rights, and technically “moved” the franchise to Evansville, giving it the already-established “IceMen” name.
So contractually speaking, the CHL IceMen are not the same as the AAHL IceMen. However, there is no denying the importance of the brief history of the “defunct” IceMen AAHL franchise, which brought pro hockey to Evansville for the first time and delivered a playoff championship in its second and “final” season. For more about the IceMen organization’s roots, please read the IceMen AAHL Beginnings section later on this page.
The Muskegon Years
The current IceMen CHL franchise officially dates to 1992, when the Muskegon Fury began playing at the LC Walker Arena in Muskegon, Michigan. Muskegon had enjoyed professional hockey annually since 1960, when the Muskegon Zephyrs joined the “original” International Hockey League (which operated from 1945 to 2001). That franchise changed its name to the Muskegon Mohawks following the 1964-1965 season, and would change its name again to the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 1984. The “original” Lumberjacks franchise moved to Cleveland after the 1991-1992 IHL season, leaving a void in the Muskegon hockey scene.
The Fury then became a reality, keeping the Muskegon pro hockey tradition alive by joining the Colonial Hockey League, which had just launched in 1991. The league would change its name to the United Hockey League in 1997, and the Fury went on to claim 4 UHL Colonial Cup playoff championships over the next 8 seasons, including back-to-back titles in 2003-2004 and 2004-2005.
As “throwbacks” became all the rage, both the league and the team would adopt more “traditional” names. The UHL became the International Hockey League in 2007, which was fitting for the Midwestern “bus league” because the “original” IHL had essentially the same geographic footprint before nationwide expansion in the 1990′s eventually led to the league’s financial demise in 2001. A year after the league’s name change, Muskegon took a page out of its own history and the Fury became the Lumberjacks. The Lumberjacks name represented success in Muskegon, as the “original” IHL Lumberjacks claimed 6 division titles, 3 regular season championships and 2 playoff titles in just 8 seasons before the move to Cleveland.
Alas, after only 2 seasons (including a regular season championship), the owners of the “new” Lumberjacks would bring an abrupt end to Muskegon’s 50-year pro hockey history. When the Lumberjacks name was transferred to Muskegon’s new USHL franchise following the 2009-2010 season, Ron Geary purchased the IHL franchise rights for use in Evansville. The IHL also entered into a “collaboration” agreement with the Central Hockey League, and the franchise now plays in Evansville under the CHL banner.
IceMen AAHL Beginnings
The city of Evansville had never witnessed professional hockey. The University of Southern Indiana’s Ice Eagles club hockey team enjoyed a few successful years at Swonder Ice Arena shortly after the turn of the century, but the program eventually dissolved and the city’s highest remaining level of hockey was of the high school variety. Conventional thinking indicated that there could not be pro hockey in Evansville, since Roberts Stadium’s floor is not large enough for a hockey rink and Swonder is generally considered to be too small to hold the crowds pro hockey teams require to be successful. But with unconventional thinking comes unconventional success.
The radical concept of playing “Single-A” pro hockey in smaller “recreational” rinks instead of large arenas presented an opportunity for Evansville, and Ellis Park owner Ron Geary saw the potential in it. In the summer of 2008, it was announced that Geary was launching the Evansville IceMen, a minor professional hockey team that would play its home games at Swonder Ice Arena as part of the Midwest Hockey League (MWHL), an upstart league that would have several teams in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions.
The MWHL never actually got off the ground due to problems securing additional franchises, but Geary and General Manager Chip Rossetti were undeterred. The MWHL’s only two viable franchises, the IceMen and the Motor City Gamblers (eventually known as the Detroit Dragons), joined two former franchises from the recently-defunct Mid-Atlantic Hockey League – the Battle Creek Revolution and the South Shore (later Chi-Town) Shooters – to form the All-American Hockey Association (AAHA) for the 2008-2009 hockey season.
The AAHA would have its difficulties, including the mid-season folding of the Dragons, but the IceMen proved to be the ultimate “diamond in the rough,” playing to capacity crowds virtually every night and emerging as the AAHA’s most stable franchise. A restructuring after the AAHA’s inaugural season resulted in the association officially becoming a league – the All-American Hockey League.
For its second season, the AAHL attempted to solidify itself, adding a new team in Detroit (the Detroit Hitmen) and retaining the expansion Chicago Blaze, who had played a hurried and limited schedule during the first season after the Dragons franchise ceased operations. The AAHL also absorbed the still-idle MWHL’s only committed franchise, the Madison Ice Muskies, as part of a merger between the leagues.
Despite its best efforts, the overall instability continued during the AAHL’s second season. Both the Blaze and Ice Muskies folded due to financial difficulties, and the Hitmen moved from Detroit to Muskegon mid-season, becoming the West Michigan Blizzard. But throughout it all, one thing remained constant – the Evansville IceMen continued to be the class of the league, both on and off the ice…
Please Note: This section will be further expanded in the coming months, with complete season results, in-depth statistics, team and individual records, team pictures and much more. Currently, we’re just scratching the surface of the IceMen AAHL franchise history!
IceMen Season #1: 2008-2009
The inaugural IceMen season was generally a great success, despite mixed results on the ice. The city of Evansville proved itself as a hockey market, rewarding Geary for making an investment that many deemed to be quite risky. The stands at Swonder were packed on Opening Night – November 14, 2008 – as the IceMen fell to the Chi-Town Shooters 5-3. However, the fans came back the following night when the Battle Creek Revolution came to Evansville, and the IceMen delivered with a 3-2 victory, the first professional hockey win in the history of the city.
Large crowds continued to be the norm throughout the season, as Head Coach Jason Reichart and the IceMen posted a respectable 11-10-0-0 record at home, despite an overall record of just 16-26-0-0. Dylan Haddix had both the first goal and first fight in IceMen franchise history, Michael Uvodich tallied the team’s first hat trick, and Ryan Ford put together the organization’s first “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” with 1 goal and 1 assist with 1 fight in the same game.
One of the highlights of the team’s first season was the signing of goaltender Kira Hurley, who became one of only a handful of women to ever play in a men’s professional hockey game. Hurley made her debut on January 24, 2009, and would later make history on February 14. During Evansville’s lopsided 24-4 victory over the undermanned Chicago Blaze, Hurley was credited with an Assist on the 23rd IceMen goal – making her the first female goaltender to record a point in a men’s pro game. In recognition of her historic helper, the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto now features Hurley’s game-used stick and the official scoresheet that documents the accomplishment. The items are on permanent display in the Hall’s wing devoted to the minor leagues.
The IceMen did qualify for the playoffs, but lost in the Best-of-3 first round to Battle Creek. Evansville fell 5-2 and 1-0 on the road, officially bringing to an end the inaugural season of pro hockey in Evansville. Despite the undesirable finish on the ice, the IceMen organization certainly proved to be an overall success. But the “success train” was only about to leave the station, and the team’s second season would be much better and brighter…
IceMen Season #2: 2009-2010
With one season in the books, the IceMen moved onward and upward in Year 2. With new Head Coach Jack Collins at the helm, Evansville posted a strong 14-7-0-2 record at “the friendly confines” of Swonder Ice Arena. Inconsistent play on the road pulled the team’s overall regular season record down to 20-23-0-3, but the IceMen put it all together late in the season and peaked at the right time. But more on that in a minute…
The first-ever AAHL All-Star Game was held in Evansville on January 9, as the league wanted to showcase its top talent in its best market. IceMen forward Ryan Ford starred in the game with 5 goals and 2 assists, earning Team MVP honors. During the second IceMen season, fans at Swonder also witnessed the first home shootout win in franchise history, the organization’s first “Teddy Bear Toss”, and even a “Wedding on Ice”!
Overall, it was a streaky regular season for Evansville. The IceMen started the season 4-1-0-1, then endured a 5-11-0-2 skid. The team rebounded with a 7-4-0-0 stretch, but that was followed by a season-long 5-game losing streak. After some personnel changes and a couple of adjustment games, Collins and the IceMen were primed for the stretch run. Evansville’s team chemistry improved and the squad finished the regular season slate riding a season-best 4-game winning streak – and the victories would keep on coming in the playoffs.
In the Best-of-5 semifinal round of the AAHL Davidson Cup playoffs, Evansville (the #3 seed) prevailed 3-games-to-1 over the #2 seed Battle Creek Revolution. The IceMen started on the road, dominating Game 1 in Battle Creek 10-2, then escaping with a 4-3 win in Overtime in Game 2. “Big Bad” John Dorman made 54 saves and Jason Gorrie scored the game-winner in the extra session, sending the IceMen home for Game 3 with a chance to complete the sweep. However, the Revolution bounced back with a hard-fought 3-2 win at Swonder, handing Evansville its first home loss in 37 calendar days. The IceMen then regrouped and put an end to the Revolution in Game 4 at Swonder, emerging with a 4-3 Overtime victory on Jose Vazquez’ crowd-pleasing clutch goal.
The IceMen claimed the Davidson Cup in the Best-of-7 championship round by eliminating the #4 seed West Michigan Blizzard 4-games-to-1. Evansville took Game 1 at home 7-2, but the Blizzard stole away home-ice advantage with a 3-1 victory in Game 2 at Swonder. Undeterred, the IceMen hit the road and promptly wrestled back control of the series with a pair of victories in Muskegon. Evansville took Game 3 by a score of 7-4, then won on enemy ice 10-5 in Game 4 to ensure that the Cup would be on the line in Game 5 back at Swonder. With a sell-out crowd watching, Ford posted a hat trick and Dorman made 47 saves to lead the IceMen to a 4-3 series-clinching victory.
In just the second season of professional hockey in Evansville, the IceMen delivered a title on home ice, the first professional sports championship in the city since the Evansville Otters won the Frontier League baseball crown in 2006. As Team Captain Isaac Coy hoisted the Cup, players and fans alike truly savored the memorable moment. The on-ice celebration lasted nearly 20 minutes, and you can see it all (in 3 parts) here, here, and here.