A personal look back at Year 1

It’s so loud rinkside at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, it’s hard to even hear yourself think. The crowd, whipped into a frenzy, is counting down the final seconds of what will become a signature win for the Indy Fuel.

And, by the way, that’s with headphones on.

The Fuel are about to end the South Carolina Stingrays’ ECHL-record 23-game winning streak, and the celebration among the fans is like hearing the countdown of a Cup championship.

The diehards – the fans who buy season tickets, who follow the team’s every move, who adopted the Indy Fuel as their own – knew the historical significance. Those who might have just walked up and bought tickets to their first hockey game quickly found out.

This game is special. This sport is special. And, that moment was one of many that helped us all realize it.

Above the din, I reach over and hit the button to my left until it turns green, opening my raspy voice to the thousands shouting their heads off. Impromptu, excitedly, as the team is skating to the center circle, I shout above the din, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed ECHL history, ending the longest winning streak in ECHL history at 23 games, your Indy Fuel.”

I’m not sure anyone heard it, but the roar escalated to deafening.

That’s what I’ll remember from the first season of Indy Fuel hockey. I had the great fortune to have the best seat in the house each and every night (well, almost every night – more on that later) as the Fuel’s in-arena voice. We were all able to witness some great hockey, but more importantly, witness the development of something special.

The year started out a bit tentatively for all of us. This was all new – even veteran Indy hockey fans weren’t quite sure what to expect with the ECHL. Was it going to be like the late, great International Hockey League of the original Ice franchise? Was it going to be more like the Central Hockey League (which the ECHL had just absorbed) that the minor pro Ice played in a decade ago? Was it going to be something in-between? Who were the players? What would we embrace?

Change is never easy. I remember the same questions 16 years ago, seeing a totally new cast of characters and level of play, but by the end of the season, seeing Bernie John and Jamie Morris hoist the Miron Cup and not just endear themselves to fans, but make themselves a long-term part of our community.

The answers came pretty quickly. The hockey was spectacular, and it was fun watching a team that was feeling itself out early turn it on at midseason and become one of the best teams in the ECHL by season’s end. The players might not have been familiar names in October, but they sure became like family to us by April.

Things were ushered in with a spectacular opening night – although I’ll remember that day for vastly different reasons. What was an incredible evening for the Fuel, starting with a really impressive on-ice projection that covered the 75-year history of hockey in Indianapolis, and finishing with a shootout that, unfortunately, didn’t go the home team’s way. Unfortunately, I was far from my rinkside seat that night – spending the day overseas in a courtroom, finalizing the adoption of our child – so that day will be memorable for many other reasons.

But honestly, I don’t feel I missed much. Because seeing the bond grow between team and fans was much greater than witnessing one night of a packed house.

The highlights are too numerous – all the way to the final moment on home ice, when Justin Holl banked the puck into the net off Kalamazoo’s Joel Martin from below the red line to seal a win and keep the Fuel in an improbable playoff chase – to mention. A few stand out – hearing the din of the building when Kyle Stroh scored his first hat trick, and it getting even louder when I announced it as the first in team history, seeing Mac Carruth get the first home shutout, the three-fights-in-16-seconds game against Wheeling late in the season, where two teams battling for a playoff spot wouldn’t give an inch.

But what made 2014-15 special were the people who made it happen. This was an easy team to root for – not just because it had the second-best record in the ECHL from Jan. 10 on, but because it was made up of high-quality, high-class players who did precisely what coach Scott Hillman promised and provided an honest, high-quality, hard-work effort each night. It was enjoyable chatting with players and coaches postgame, being around a front office staff that truly cared about providing a positive fan experience, and being a part of an outstanding show every night.

I’ve loved hockey since I went to my first game at the old Fairgrounds Coliseum more than three decades ago, when Bruce Affleck and Kevin Devine and Kelly Hrudey and Darcy Regier and Garth MacGuigan and Red Laurence became my heroes. Those guys ignited a passion in this game for me that has never waned. This Indy Fuel squad – Nick Bruneteau dishing from the point, Kyle Stroh finishing in front of the net, Garett Bembridge sniping from the slot, Rhett Bly and Matt White and Evan Vossen killing penalties with abandon, Shane Owen and Mac Carruth holding down the fort in-between the pipes (and Carruth nearly scoring a goal earlier this season). Those will be the heroes for the 7-year-old in the stands who were introduced to this great sport this year. It was a privilege and an honor to be able to witness it from the best seat in the house, and to describe all of the goals and high moments to you, the Indy Fuel fans.

Because, just as much as the players, the coaches and the staff, you are a big reason Year 1 was so successful. Can’t wait for Year 2.