When Scott Hillman, the new coach of the Indy Fuel hockey team, visited the overhauled Fairgrounds Coliseum, he was more than a little impressed. It was vastly different from the old barn he'd played in during his days in the Central League, when he was a defenseman for the Odessa Jackalopes and his squad would make the trip from Texas to play the old Indianapolis Ice.
"At first I thought I'd maybe had too many concussions when I walked in," Hillman laughs. "I don't remember the home locker room being where it is — I remember having to take a couple steps up to get onto the concourse, all sorts of things."
The revamped building was part of the draw for Hillman — the Coliseum was comparable to the rink that hosted the Missouri Mavericks, the team he coached before coming to Indy. "I think it's even better than the last building I played in, and that was built new for us in 2010. To have the nostalgia of the old building, the structure on the outside, and then to come inside and you're just amazed by the sight lines. It's the perfect-sized building. State of the art electronics. It's going to allow for an incredible game presentation."
It's a far cry from some of the sheds that Hillman skated in when he played in some of the lower tiers of the sport. "The worst one was in Jacksonville, Florida. It was more of a youth rink that they'd tried set up for minor league hockey. The PA speakers for the building were sitting above the ceiling tile of our locker room. When the music would start at the intermission, it would rattle the dust out of the ceiling. You could see the ceiling shaking." Hillman suffered more indignities in the minors: "You know, cold showers — won't be any of that in this building, I'll tell you that."
No doubt about it, the facility's going to be a help. Hillman and the Fuel have their work cut out for them: they've got to re-educate a market that hasn't been home to a professional hockey team in a decade. And they're going to field a team that's very, very young. For some of the players — most of whom are roughly the same age as Nirvana's Nevermind and the publication you're reading right now — this will be their first experience as professional skaters.
"I've gone through this," says Hillman, speaking by phone (with an unmistakable Ontario accent) from his office in the Coliseum. "When I went to Missouri, I started that expansion team. I know how difficult it is but how rewarding it is. We didn't start very well there, but we kicked and clawed and scratched our way into the playoffs and won the first round.
"There is no core of players yet, and it's not like I'm bringing a core of players with me. I'm bringing one player with me from my club last year, not seven or eight guys that know the coach's style, not seven or eight guys that know each other from the previous year. They don't know the city, they don't know the coach, they don't know the fans, they don't know the building, they don't know the drive to the rink, they don't know the apartments — there is going to be an adjustment for everybody."
Although the pay is hardly major league — we'll get to those numbers in a bit — Hillman's entire squad has their housing paid for by the Fuel at an apartment complex in Fishers. As training camp opened, most of the players hadn't seen much of Indy beyond the Binford Boulevard corridor that connects their bedrooms with the rink.
To sum up: Hillman has to wrangle a newly formed roster, built from scratch and composed of guys whose ages range from 21 to 25, most of whom have zero familiarity with the Circle City. The lineup at the end of the season will be vastly different from the roster on opening night, when Indy renews its rivalry with the Fort Wayne Komets. Some guys will wash out, some will get moved up. Hilman's somehow got to find cohesion in the face of all that movement.
So why take on the challenge? The gig in Missouri was successful. The stands were usually full. Hillman and his family — his wife and two young hockey-playing sons, an eight and a 12-year-old — were happy in Independence, MO.
Simply put, this isn't a lateral career move. The East Coast Hockey League, the ECHL, is considered by most a step up from the last league he coached. (UPDATE: The Mavs, along with all the other CHL teams, were absorbed by the ECHL just after we went to press.) The Fuel also have an NHL affiliation: they're one of the two farm clubs feeding the Chicago Blackhawks. (If you know baseball, think of the Fuel as the 'Hawks AA squad. The other, the Rockford Ice Hogs, would be comparable to a Triple-A farm club — the kind of relationship the Indianapolis Indians have with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Indianapolis Ice also had affiliations with the 'Hawks at times during their run.)
And for Hillman, the way the two development teams are connected to their NHL franchise was a selling point, too. Hillman is working hand-in-hand with Ice Hogs coach Ted Dent in Rockford and the staff in Chicago — in fact, the coach had returned from the Blackhawks rookie camp immediately prior to our conversation. The Blackhawks are intent on developing players through their system, players who may one day join the major-league team.
But, says Hillman, "We want to be similar to the Blackhawks, of course, but at every level you make your own adjustments to have success at [that] particular level. We're certainly not going to carbon-copy their playbook and implement that here. I will bring my own style, but we do want to complement what they're doing and make sure our guys are prepared when they move on to Rockford — that they know what Ted Dent's going to expect from them there. We'll stay very close and in tune to what they're doing in Rockford."
And that dictates a style of hockey that relies on speed.
"We want to be a high-tempo team. To us, that's a pressure system. The 'Hawks play a high-tempo game, a real puck control game — I think that part of it takes time ... we are recruiting guys that can play with that energy and guys that can get up and down the ice pretty well. We're looking for guys that can skate, for sure."
If your familiarity of professional hockey begins and ends with Slap Shot, that's not the game you'll see. Hillman doesn't want lumbering goons, but guys who first skate hard and quick — and will eventually learn to control that rubber disc with finesse, and in turn, control the game. It's something that fans and players call "hands."
"The hands part is the tougher part. We're going to have a young team, and it takes time, I don't care what league they coming from, there's always an adjustment period ... We believe we're going to have to grind out the goals, especially in the first half of the year. We know it's not going to be tic-tac-toe all over the place because guys aren't used to each other, new systems, new everything."
Hillman knows there's a balance here: while the team grows accustomed to one another and their coach, they'll have to bring a lot of physicality to their game. "We want to be a team that really finishes our checks and just makes it uncomfortable for the other team," Hillman assures me. "We're gonna have some big bodies, some tough guys, but we want to be a disciplined hockey team, a team that plays smart. We're not looking to bring back old-style hockey. The game certainly has changed."