Indiana Ice and the Ivy League
Walking inside the rink’s glass enclosure is like stepping into a human terrarium. The ever-present smell of repeatedly frozen and thawed sweat greets its visitors like an annoying neighbor. There are 23 figures out on the rink, moving to the sound of steel on ice. They seem to skate more naturally than they walk, giving their full attention to the small black puck in front of them as they fly backwards and around corners with their sticks held before them. For most people this sight is a demonstration of grace and finely-tuned skill. For the 23 members of the Indiana Ice hockey team, this is practice.
But practice is just part of an already full day for the players. Take Nick Bailen, a team guardsman. Bailen has been awake since 6 a.m. and made the 45-minute drive to Cathedral High School, where he is finishing his senior year. He goes to Spanish, pre-calculus, gym, theology, lunch and economics before leaving school at 1:30 for practice, where he will work with the personal trainer for 45 minutes and then join the rest of the team for drill after drill on the ice until 5 p.m.
After practice, Bailen will shower and make the rush hour drive back to Noblesville, where he stays with John and Darcey Steel, his host family or “billet family,” as the team calls them. When he makes it back he will relax for a while before starting his homework. He might get to sleep by midnight. Then he’ll wake up and do it all over again. This has been Bailen ‘s life for the last three years. He’s now 18 years old.
The Indiana Ice is a part of the United States Hockey League, a junior league comprised of players who, at the beginning of the season, are no more than 20 years old. Players in this league unanimously have one of two things in mind: a hockey scholarship to a division one school or a spot on a team in the NHL. It’s this motivation that gets the team onto the ice day after day. And apparently it’s working. The Ice has 20 players committed with scholarships to D1 schools for this coming season or the next, some good hockey schools and some great academic schools, including Harvard, Princeton and Cornell to name a few. But why leave home?
“Hockey is the only sport in the country where kids have to move to advance,” says team coach Charlie Skjodt. In fact, that’s exactly what the native-born Canadian did himself at age 20, moving from his hometown of Toronto to Windsor to play for the Spitfires Junior A team.
Spending so much time together, the players become more than just teammates. They start to grow into a family with their own, special traditions. One of the billet families started having pasta dinners on any Thursday night the team is in town.
“It brings the kids together, it gives them a focus, besides giving them the kind of meal they need to eat the night before a game,” says Bob McCutcheon, who, along with his wife, Carolyn, are the billet family coordinators and have housed players for the past four years. “But what’s happened is, believe it or not, we have won over 95 percent of those games the next night and, last Saturday for example, all five goals were scored by players who sit at this table.”
For most of these players, next year means college and all the glory that walks alongside athletics at a D1 school. Some of them will go from college into the NHL with its big arenas, signing bonuses and endorsement payoffs. But for now these are still just guys playing hockey — and that seems to be OK with them. Their only payment is in playing time, curfew is still at 11:30 and Thursday is still pasta night at Bob and Carolyn’s.
Pack the House for Charity
This Saturday, the Ice will be competing against the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the 14th annual Pack the House for Charity game at Conseco Fieldhouse. The event will benefit The Villages, Indiana’s largest child and family services not-for-profit agency, with $5 from the purchase of each $15 or $11 ticket going directly to The Villages’ enrichment funding account (www.villages.org).
“Every kid deserves to go to camp, to museums, to have tutors,” said Linda Adams, director of development for The Villages. “Enrichment funding makes sure that foster kids get to do everything other kids get to do.”
Last year, the game brought more than 14,000 people through Conseco’s doors, breaking the record for the most people ever in attendance at a junior hockey game. It also raised more than $25,000 for The Villages, which works in several areas, including foster care, adoption and transitional living. The Villages also runs two state-of-the-art daycare centers, called Children’s Village. Six of the Ice players visited the Indianapolis Children’s Village last Monday. The players helped the kids try on their much-too-big pads and uniforms as well as defended a miniature soccer goal against the children’s shooting attempts.
The game starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are available at all Ticketmaster locations. To order tickets for groups of 10 or more, call the Ice office at 317-925-4423.
Where: Conseco Fieldhouse
Tickets: $11-$15; all Ticketmaster locations, www.indianaice.com
What: Pack the House for Charity: Indiana Ice vs. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders
When: Saturday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.