Conflict with Evansville city forces Icemen to Kentucky

EVANSVILLE, Indiana – A controversy has befallen the Evansville Icemen of the East Coast Hockey League, where I found myself last weekend as the Tulsa Oilers took on the local team in a pair of games. The Icemen are playing their final game in Evansville and have started packing for a move to the Blue Grass state.

The Icemen have been playing in the five-year old Ford Center, which opened in 2011 and is also the home of The University of Evansville Purple Aces men’s and women’s basketball teams. It’s a beautiful arena with a lot of the newer amenities that come with a new building. However, the management group has put the squeeze on the local pro hockey team and the owner of the Icemen has decided to move the team out of town. The Icemen have found a new home in Owensboro, Kentucky, across the Ohio River and about 30 miles east of Evansville.

When it came time to renegotiate the team’s lease with the City of Evansville in January, Icemen’s owner Ron Geary said the city made an offer costing way more than the original contract and would be too expensive for the team to operate in that building. Also, it appears the Icemen owe the city $600,000 in back payments, so the team has dug a hole for themselves.

In the meantime, the Icemen have settled on a deal to move to Kentucky and will actually own the Owensboro SportsCenter outright. Under the Owensboro deal, the IceMen will be deeded ownership of the SportsCenter for $1, with plans to spend $4-6 million to expand the arena’s seating from 5,000 to 7,200 and its floor space from 11,000 to 16,000 square feet in order to fit a regulation sized hockey rink.

The IceMen ideally want the renovations finished by next fall, in time to play in the 2016-17 ECHL season. Geary said the ECHL commissioner recently visited the SportsCenter and would consider it an “acceptable” league venue, pending the major renovations. However, funding for the improvements still needs to be found.

The SportsCenter was built in 1949 and is used by Kentucky Wesleyan College basketball and the Kentucky Mavericks of the Premier Basketball League. It also hosts high school basketball, graduations and other events.

“I’ve been so impressed with how Owensboro officials and staff have put an amazing level of support behind this project, and I know it will continue as we work diligently to take our vision from concept to completion,” Geary said in a statement in January.

With the departure of the Icemen, Evansville has already found a new ownership group that is bringing a Southern Professional Hockey League team to the Ford Center next season. The SPHL is similar to the former Central Hockey League, without direct NHL affiliations, and includes teams in cities that used to be in the CHL; Macon and Columbus, Georgia; Fayetteville, N.C.; Huntsville, Ala; and South Haven, Miss.

It will be interesting to see if the SPHL team will survive and how fans the team will draw with the Icemen only a 40-minute drive away.

EVANSVILLE MEMORIAL

In the main lobby of the Ford Center is a memorial display paying respect to the members of the Evansville University basketball team that died in a plane crash on December 13, 1977. All 29 people aboard the aircraft died, including 14 members of the Purple Aces basketball team, along with Coach Bobby Watson. Also on board were three student managers, three university officials, the team’s radio announcer, two fans, and four members of the flight crew and the president of the airline.

I was a young teen at the time and only faintly remember the news of this crash, so it was interesting to read the story and inscriptions in this memorial display.

It was a cold, rainy evening with fog moving in and winds whipping across the area. However, it wasn’t the weather that brought down the twin-engine DC-3. According to the official accident report the probable cause of the crash was listed as “An attempted take-off with the rudder and right aileron control locks installed, in combination with a rearward center of gravity, which resulted in the aircraft’s rotating to a nose-high attitude immediately after take-off, and entering the region of reversed command from which the pilot was unable to recover.”

It’s remarkable to think how many such tragedies have hit sports teams over the years. In doing a search online, I found over 20 such accidents worldwide, with many affecting teams in the United States.

Close to home, the Oklahoma State basketball teams have had more than their share of tragedy. There was the plane crash that claimed the lives of 10 members of the Oklahoma State men’s basketball team travel party, on January 27, 2001. Two players died in that crash, along with team staff, media members and the flight crew. Then on November 17, 2011, OSU women’s basketball head coach Kurt Budke and one of his assistant coaches, Miranda Serna, died in the crash of a small Piper Cherokee. The two pilots also died.

Other such tragedies include crashes involving the Cal Poly San Louis Obispo football team (Oct. 1960), U.S. Figure Skating team (Feb. 1961), Wichita State football team (Oct. 1970), Marshall University football team (Nov. 1970), and the U.S. Amateur Boxing team (March 1980).