Commentary: Looking back at Indy’s Title Teams

Ice-Cup2

Tyler Pham hoists the Clark Cup after the Ice’s win in 2014.

Three decades and some change ago, I was a young kid who was taken to the Fairgrounds Coliseum to see an Indianapolis Checkers game, and something new had been kindled in me.

I’d never seen or heard of this game on ice before we walked into the Coliseum, but I was pretty smitten with it by the time I left. Many following nights were spent listening to Rick Heliste — who I’d later discover was a neighbor — broadcast Checkers games on the radio, and I celebrated when the team finished off a championship in Birmingham that year.

I can remember seeing the Adams Cup — the Central Hockey League’s championship trophy that was claimed twice by the Checkers in 1982 and 1983 — on a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was a fairly small trophy, but I told my wife: “this thing meant as much as the Stanley Cup to me as a kid.”

Fast-forward 31 years. We’re in a cozy arena in Waterloo, Iowa, with a frenzied cowbell-ringing crowd silenced as the Indiana Ice have gathered at center ice. USHL commissioner Skip Prince hands the Clark Cup to Ice captain Tyler Pham, who immediately drops to his knees while he holds it over his head. It seems like an eternity while the Ice players skate the Cup around the Waterloo rink with sheer joy on their faces and in their voices, the culmination of a special run by a special team, capped by one of the best hockey games I’ve ever witnessed. I was fortunate enough to be among them as they celebrated and skated, doing on-ice interviews so fans back in Indiana could hear and taste what was going on in Waterloo — just like I had been 31 years before when the Checkers were in Birmingham.

Hockey is wonderful anytime. But there’s nothing like seeing a special, talented team win a championship and skate the league’s title trophy.

In Indianapolis, we’ve done it nine times. I’ve been to hundreds of hockey games over the last three decades. There are a few snippets I remember, but Jim Waite’s outstanding performance against Muskegon and the crowd of 6,003 (believe it or not, that number has been burned in my head since then) roaring at the Coliseum as the 1990 Ice swept the Lumberjacks is one. The 2000 team that started as an expansion team and pushed all the right buttons as the year went on, with a red-hot Jamie Morris in net and two very good lines providing scoring getting them to win back-to-back road games to beat Columbus and win the Miron Cup is another. Max Cook forechecking relentlessly to force a turnover against Green Bay in 2009, leading to a critical tiebreaking goal is another, as the Ice went on to win that series and the next in Fargo.

The one I’ll never forget? Mitch Hults batting a puck out of the air to tie Game 5 at 1-1. Alex Talcott reaching around Cal Petersen to score a rebound and tie the game at 2-2 midway through the third. And Aidan Muir skating up the right side, dropping the puck to Brian Pinho trailing him, and seeing Pinho fire a far-post shot that disappeared behind Petersen. There was that split-second between the time the puck went out of view, and the moment we all realized the puck was in the net, the referee pointed and the red light went on. A beautiful play, a perfect snipe, a beautiful goal. And, if the Ice can hang on for 135 seconds (which felt like 135 days), a championship. They did, and they won.

It’s pretty special when you’re watching history happen in front of you. To see the range of emotions up close — from satisfaction to unbridled joy — as the guys hoisted the Clark Cup was unforgettable.

First, those guys will have that championship with them the rest of their lives. 2009 Ice player Torey Krug has played in a Stanley Cup Final and become an All-Rookie NHL defenseman, but he’s still referred to as a Clark Cup champ. Second, there is a sense of tremendous accomplishment when a goal is set and achieved. Those thoughts go through the mind when you see a group of players go through that over a preseason, regular season and a deep playoff run and vanquish every shred of competition. Two things virtually every player and coach said to me on the ice this spring was “we were 0-3-1,” and “we went from worst to first.”

The sense of accomplishment was great. It was in a worst-to-first scenario or an expansion team that was out of the playoff structure at midseason-to-champs scenario like the 2000 Ice. But it also is when you have a dominant team like the 1990 Ice — arguably the best minor pro team ever put together in Indianapolis — or the 1983 Checkers, a veteran back-to-back champion that was the taxi squad for a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

This series has been a couple of decades in the making. A few years back, I was a student at Indiana University, nearly done with finals, with little to do, in a study break in the library. I had heard a little bit about the Indianapolis Capitals winning championships in the 1940s and 50s, and wanted to find out more. When I started unfolding that story by looking at grainy microfilm of old newspapers, I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to learn more about the story of those teams and guys like Terry Sawchuk playing in the same rink I watched hockey games.

Every championship has a story. There’s the dominant teams like the 1990 Ice and the 1983 Checkers that rolled through the regular season and the playoffs, never facing elimination. There’s the teams that got hot at the right time, such as the 2009 Ice, a deep team that really became a contender when Mike Cichy put up video game numbers in the playoffs. Or the 2000 Ice, an expansion team that was out of the playoff picture on Jan. 1, but got hot and came together and simply refused to lose. Or the 1982 Checkers, who began to gain their championship form as the season — and the playoffs — went on. Or the 1950 Caps, who became the first team in AHL history to go 8-0 in the playoffs, beating the powerful Cleveland Barons along the way. There are the survivors — theĀ  1942 Caps had to survive two winner-take-all games and a Game 5 double overtime in a best-of-5 semifinal series ended by Judd McAtee’s swipe-and-score, the 1950; the 1958 Chiefs had a losing regular-season record but won two straight games in Louisville to take the Turner Cup in Game 7, clinching it by a hair at the final buzzer in a manner reminiscent of the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins.

And, not in the series were the teams that maybe put together memorable years or playoff runs that didn’t win titles. The 1984 Checkers barely made the playoffs, but found their mojo in the postseason and upset a loaded Colorado Flames team in the CHL semis. The 1977 Racers swept the favored Cincinnati Stingers, with Gene Peacosh’s triple-OT goal in Game 1 spurring them on, but fell to the eventual WHA champion Quebec Nordiques in the semis. The 1940 Caps lost the semifinal series — a matchup of division champs — on an overtime goal by a future Indy legend, Hal Jackson. Marc Lamothe’s amazing run in net in 1999, leading the Ice to a series win over Cincinnati and a close series against heavily-favored Detroit.

Our hockey history is rich. Indy teams have won nine championships, in five different leagues, with six different franchises. The ECHL’s Indy Fuel are ready to open the next chapter in that history. Hopefully, that will soon include the 10th championship in our city’s hockey history.

Here is each retrospective in Indy’s Title Teams: