Last Friday night on a rink in Fargo, N.D., a hockey team from Indiana finished its improbable march to glory: Your Indiana Ice is the Clark Cup Champions of the USHL.
For those baffled by that last phrase, the United States Hockey League is the top tier of amateur hockey. Unlike the high-school-to-college-to-maybe-pro timeline of hoops and pigskin, skaters earn their stripes in amateur leagues called "juniors" - and Indy's own are now the top dogs in the USA. Most hail from other states - or even countries - and live with local families in exchange for a modest stipend. From a team like the Ice, kids may go pro or to Division 1 collegiate programs.
After handling Cedar Rapids and Green Bay in the post-season, the Ice faced a monstrously physical squad from North Dakota in the championship round. The Ice lost their opener at home to the Fargo Force 2-1 on a goal that snuck past stellar netminder Brett Bennett with 0:38 seconds left, then steamrolled Fargo for the rest of the best-of-five series behind top scorers Mike Cichy (Clark Cup MVP) and Brandon Richardson. The Ice crushed the Force 5-2 at Pepsi Coliseum and then pounded their opponents in the next two away games, 6-zip and 5-1.
The scores might make that run sound easy, but consider the following: The Ice had a mere three players left on the squad from last year's playoff run. The team lost their beloved GM Mike Schupay to heart failure just after Thanksgiving. And they had a new coach, Jeff Blashill, a Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., native just off a six-year run as an assistant at Miami of Ohio, a team that placed second in this year's "Frozen Four" NCAA championship tourney. We had the chance to sit down with coach Blashill.
NUVO: Congratulations on the Clark Cup. Your guys are too young to drink beer out of it, though.
BLASHILL: Exactly. (Laughs.) My dad was there and a couple buds I'd played with in juniors and we did have an adult beverage. I'll tell ya, though, it was great sharing that 15-hour bus ride back with [assistants] Brad Lutsch and Justin Lyle.
NUVO: How'd you keep morale up after that opening loss against Fargo at home?
BLASHILL: I told the guys, it's just one game. You need three to win the series and we just kept our emotions in check.
NUVO: You're pretty calm on the bench. I even saw you hushing some of the guys after a bad call.
BLASHILL: (Laughs) That's been a maturation process for me. Some guys who knew me before this season would laugh at that statement! This year I realized pretty quickly that I'd have to lead by example, and if I was out of control, the bench would be out of control.
NUVO: I'd imagine you prefer the best-of-five playoff scenario as opposed to the collegiate one-and-done format.
BLASHILL: It was awesome. You've gotta be prepared for the ups and downs; you can be up 2 to 1 and then the other guys come storming back. It's a neat thing if you can handle the pressure, and our guys did just that.
NUVO: Fargo played tough - some might say dirty - but your guys weren't afraid to drop the gloves. Why is fighting tolerated in juniors but not at the NCAA level?
BLASHILL: That's a good question. I'd say political correctness. As far as I'm concerned, fighting has always been and always will be a part of hockey. The NCAA has put rules into play to try and eliminate it. Political correctness.
NUVO: Any idea how many kids are coming back?
BLASHILL: Eight players.
NUVO: That's better than having just three returning at the start of a season.
BLASHILL: Absolutely. We've got some good ones coming back. It's a good foundation, but we still need a good draft.
NUVO: We're not exactly a hockey town. Besides a USHL team winning championships, how can we raise awareness of the sport here in Indy?
BLASHILL: Just getting the word out about what a great sport it is to see live. It's so much better in person than on TV. Everyone I know who's seen a hockey game for the first time has loved it. And these kids are at a level where they're giving it all they've got every night.
NUVO: A moment like losing Mike Schupay can either demoralize or invigorate a squad. Does a coach have any effect on how such young guys interpret such a slap of reality like that?
BLASHILL: I think a coach can have some effect. I'd never, ever had to deal with anything like that in my career before. We took it as an opportunity to remind the guys what a special thing this is, and they've got to go out every time, every game and seize the day.
NUVO: Besides a championship season, what did you like best about Indy?
BLASHILL: The Wank and O'Brien Show
NUVO: (Laughing) Hey, coach, this one's for NUVO.
BLASHILL: It's my kind of town. Midwestern values, a Midwestern atmosphere - plus there's plenty of entertainment out there when I'm not at the rink.
For more on the Ice, see www.indianaice.com.