Photos by Michelle Craig
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."
Hugh Harris is absolutely upbeat about Indy's newest team. "I think your Fuel deal is gonna do very, very well."
Harris should know. Hugh Harris once captained Indy's only major league hockey squad, the Indianapolis Racers.
The Racers played in Market Square Arena from 1973-1979 as part of the now defunct WHA, a league that folded soon after Wayne Gretzky scored his first major-league hockey goal — in a Racers' sweater in Market Square Arena. (A Gretzky jersey hangs on the wall in the Fuel head coach's office, just behind his desk — it's the first thing one sees when the coach's door opens.) When the World Hockey Association disbanded, players like Harris who'd formerly played in the NHL were left out in the cold. "There was a lot of bad feeling when those players left the NHL," Harris explains. "If you left, you would have had to have been a Wayne Gretzky to go back. They kinda put the old blackball on anybody that left."
Harris's career is pretty well documented — mostly on the walls of his restaurant, Greek Tony's Pizza in Carmel. (Harris started the business with the joint's namesake, a friend from his wife's hometown of Muskegon, MI.) He's got a lot of fond memories of his days skating at MSA. The crowds were raucous. "I would say that outside of a couple places in the NHL, when that building got filled, it was probably one of the most exciting buildings that you could ever play in. It was so compact. In its way, it was built basically for the fans," he says.
The return of professional hockey to the Coliseum is an important moment historically: the first event the building hosted was a hockey game between the Indianapolis Capitals and the Syracuse Stars on November 10th, 1939, in front of a sellout crowd of 9,139. After the Capitals ended their run in 1952, The Chiefs would take the ice from 1955-1962. The "Capitols" had a short run before professional hockey left town during the 1963/64 season, then the Racers came to MSA, followed by the Checkers and the Indianapolis Ice. The Ice would again call the Coliseum home around the turn of the 21st century before ultimately folding in 2004. Their name would be adopted by the "Indiana Ice," a top-tier amateur team in the USHL that's currently on hiatus, but plans are afoot to build the Ice a permanent home of their own on Indy's far northwest side.
For Hugh Harris, while he seems to admire the amateur squad, he's convinced that a junior hockey product doesn't have quite the same connection to Indy's fans. "People can relate back to their mom or dad or grandpa talkin' about the old Chiefs — or now I guess it's the old Racers," he chuckles.
Harris is convinced that an ECHL team is only the beginning of the sport's professional resurgence in Indy.
"You know they'll have a good core backing here. I would almost think that eventually, Indianapolis has to get an AHL team," Harris speculates. "There's nothing saying that the Fuel couldn't play in the ECHL and move on. They certainly got a great guy in Jim Halett." (Halett's the Fuel's team Governor and co-owner — and one of the original Indianapolis Ice owners when the Ice was setting CHL attendance records.)
"It's the old story — you've got to start somewhere. We all have our first job. Some of these boys have never been drafted, and that doesn't say that they're not good players. It's just that somebody's not in their corner. There's always a bunch of players that come on at different times. You never hear of the number one picks that didn't make it, but you always hear about the 300th pick that made it."
On the first day of camp, the tension's palpable. The players who've made the roster already and those hoping for a shot will be skating together across the fresh Fuel logo and the newly minted blue lines on the Coliseum floor. Some players who skated for the Indiana Ice — the amateur USHL squad that played in this very building — are taking a shot at making the Fuel roster. Their eyes get big when they see the change the place has undergone: upgrades like million-dollar ribbon boards are a far cry from the Coliseum's old look. Distractions abound as the hopefuls take the ice; there seems to be a photographer around every corner. The building gleams, and the faces of the hopefuls tell the story. A shot on this ice might mean a look from a team that's won the Stanley Cup recently. The locker rooms are state-of-the-art, complete with flat-screen video monitors and warmup stationary bikes near the player entrances. Even the Zamboni looks to be brand new.
It's apparent just how fresh this organization really is: Tony Brown, the Fuel's radio announcer and PR man, is introducing himself to the Fuel's newly acquired strength and conditioning trainer as they pass one another outside the locker room. Coach Hillman, relaxed, talkative and affable during our phone interview a few days earlier is quiet off the ice this day. It's obvious that Coach is getting down to the serious business of building a squad that can both feed the mothership and sell tickets, too. He's not big physically, but he's got a thousand-yard stare that's pretty intimidating. Anders Franzen, who played for Hillman in Missouri, says "Hilly" is intense: "He loves hockey. He knows how to push the buttons and get people going."
Franzen's familiar with more than just the coach. The team's looking at a total of four guys who skated as members of the Vermont Catamounts, a Division I collegiate squad that Franzen played for — "a hockey powerhouse," smirks Franzen with obvious pride. "We were thinking of changing the name to the Indy Cats," jokes Franzen. Seriously, though, "College hockey's uptempo, kind of in-your-face — we've got a lot of college players here, so it seems like they'll fit."
When I ask Hillman about his coaching technique, Hilly insists he's not a screamer. If he'd used those techniques in the past, he may have mellowed a bit — especially with a roster including guys who, in their early 20s, are picking up a paycheck for the first time in their skating career.
"Especially with a young crew, you've got to have patience. Mistakes are gonna happen, and I want to be the guy that helps 'em correct those mistakes and develop as players. It'll be a ... supportive environment."
Hillman won't have to worry about his young players going wild with their newfound riches. The ECHL has a salary cap, and it's nothing if not modest. According to the league's website, the weekly salary cap for a 20-man roster is a little over $12,000. (The floor is $9,100.) Rookies make a minimum of $415 weekly, returning players make 460 bucks. To put that number into perspective, that's about one tenth of one percent of what a top-paid NHL player like Sidney Crosby takes home (a total of $12 million for the 2013-14 season).
One man on the roster already has major-league star power associated with the letters on his jersey. Dean Chelios, a forward on the squad, is the son of NHL legend Chris Chelios. Dean's pop is an 11 time NHL All-Star, and three-time winner of the James Norris Trophy, the award handed out to the league's best defenseman.
Dean's position takes some pressure off of Hillman, who played D before injuries forced him out of his pads: "I'm happy ... he's a forward," laughs Coach. "He can't go telling his dad what I told him about playing defense."
This means star power in the stands for some Fuel games, too: "Chris follows his boys very closely, so we'll see Chris often," assures Hillman. "Dean is a great kid. He's never taken anything for granted based on his name or what his father accomplished. He is a guy who's very driven to try and become a professional hockey player."
Dean Chelios is one of the Fuel players whose name is already affixed to a stall in the locker room. He's listed at 6' 2", 185, and although he's just 25, he's already an ECHL vet — he played for the Toledo Walleye after his collegiate career at Michigan State. When Dean was younger, there was pressure to live up to the family rep, but that's dissipated. Hockey's a small universe, especially at the professional level, and as former stars have kids of their own, guys such as Chelios find themselves skating with other relatives of the game's elite. Still, Chelios pushes himself to prove he's worthy of a roster spot, lineage notwithstanding. "Obviously, I'm gonna be compared, no matter what I do. It's always a big thing to prove myself, that I wasn't on the team just for the name."
So was it then a conscious, deliberate decision to play the forward position as opposed to D, like the old man?
"I've always been a different kind of player than Dad," laughs Chelios.
Chelios, like his brothers, began skating, "as soon as we could walk — what, one or two years old? We'd hang out at the old Blackhawks locker room (his dad played for the 'Hawks throughout the '90s) and play mini-sticks and when they were done we'd get out on the ice and just cruise around." But according to Dean, his dad didn't push. "I actually loved baseball, and he liked that I liked baseball, but in the end I just loved hockey too much and stuck with that." Chelios confirms what Hillman's promised: Dean's dad likes watching all his kids play, and the Fuel won't be an exception.
"He's pretty pumped," says Dean.
If Scott Hillman and the front office of the Fuel understand anything, they understand that their marketing department includes the guys on their roster — even the ones who aren't named "Chelios."
"I know people are excited about having pro hockey back. I know they're excited about the affiliation with the Blackhawks," says Hillman. "But we really just want to show them this is going to be one hardworking team and a team they can be proud of both on and off the ice.
"Whether as a player or as a coach, it's my team's responsibility to be very 'touchable,' if you will. We're going to take time for the fans. We'll be out, we'll be in schools, we'll work with some various charities — when you're done with your playing days, it's those little things you remember. The hospital visits, even just a conversation with a fan. Where I came from, it was a very similar situation. We were just outside Kansas City and they had the old Blades in the old IHL and it had been about ten years since they'd had pro hockey and people just flooded back. Our building was full just about every night. The stories I heard over five years from 70-year-old men and women ... when the season's over, they don't know what to do. I met people with terminal illnesses who told me 'It's this team that's keeping me going' — those are the stories and the people you remember. It's an important thing for me to teach these young kids, 'cause we're gong to have a lot of first year pros. They probably had a hint of it in junior and college hockey, but never at this level, so they'll understand what a big role they're playing in people's lives — people they'll never even meet."
Additional research for this article provided by Oliver Wenck.