Less than a month before UE hosts the University of Southern Indiana at the Ford Center, ice is the surface of choice in the downtown arena as the Evansville IceMen start training camp on Monday.
The IceMen enter this season for the first time affiliated with two NHL franchises and will play in the Double-A ECHL.
What’s this mean for UE as both of the Ford Center’s two main tenants start their second season playing in the building? That timing behind UE’s new Fifth Third Practice Facility, announced last spring before the IceMen made the move to Double-A, couldn’t have been better.
The IceMen play 72 games this season spanning 27 weeks, with their opener falling on Oct. 13. The hockey team’s slate includes what the organization bills as a “major increase in attractive weekend and holiday season” home games — 29 of the IceMen’s 36 contests in the Ford Center fall on such dates.
Only three UE basketball game days directly conflict (Nov. 26 vs. Alabama A&M, Dec. 8 vs. Murray State and the women March 3 against Bradley). While that’s a good thing for the Ford Center’s staff – few same-day transitions between surfaces – it means the ice will be down on many of the Aces’ off days this season.
The IceMen appear to only be getting bigger, too.
Former UE beat writer and current Courier & Press sports editor Randy Beard penned a column in Sunday’s paper explaining how the NHL’s lockout situation affects the hockey club.
Essentially, players with major-league potential will be playing in Evansville now that the IceMen are affiliated with the top-level Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. Even more talent should trickle into the Ford Center with the NHL locked out.
The IceMen can also practice at Swonder Arena, their former home. But with a burgeoning fan base – they averaged 4,882 fans per game last season compared to fewer than 1,500 at Swonder – expect the club to get some priority on practice time at the Ford Center as the Aces work out at the new practice facility.
(Note: UE men’s basketball averaged 5,135 fans at 18 home games last year for a total of 92,431. Women’s basketball drew 694 per game for 13 games, a 9,019 total. The IceMen had 32 home games and 156,224 fans.)
UE’s basketball programs won’t have the same shooting background in the white-walled gyms. But they will drill on a court that matches the Ford Center’s floor and shoot on matching goals, providing the same rim buoyancy as their home arena’s baskets.
Without a practice facility, UE would be in a tough spot – with a downtown arena that’s not as much of a home court advantage. That’s no problem now.
The relationship among the three entities – the Ford Center, IceMen and UE – will be something to watch, especially if the hockey club continues to grow.