EVANSVILLE, IN — The lease negotiation between the City of Evansville and the Evansville IceMen marches on towards Christmas. Meetings have been taking place, but neither side has commented to The Sin Bin.
I know there are one group of fans in the league that would like nothing more than to see the lease renew and for hockey to be a staple in Evansville for years to come. As the leaves fall from trees and deer tags start to be filled in southern Indiana, a buzz starts to permeate around town. The hashtags of #DropThePuck and #KometsSuck (Sorry Fort Wayne, it’s not personal…at least not to many of us) start to fill up my twitter feed. It’s time for hockey season.
Last year’s team was bad and this year’s team has not started off with the best record. Hope for hockey season in Evansville trumps expectations for hockey season. It’s more enjoyable to think about what the team might be, rather than deal with what it usually is. This article isn’t about the on ice team, even though I still think there’s a solid hockey team there that hasn’t realized its potential yet. This is about the business of minor league hockey and fans never understanding our (yes, me too) role in it.
There are two key players in making the marriage of hockey and Evansville work. Those two players are Ron Geary and Mayor Lloyd Winnecke. I’m well aware there are lots of people that work for both, but as the face of each side of this negotiation, the buck indeed stops with each man.
Speaking of bucks, that is what at its core, this is all about. To pretend it’s about anything else is naive. Let’s clarify on a significant point before we move on. No, I’m not saying Ron Geary is a “money grubbing owner” nor am I saying that Mayor Winnecke is a miserly man trying to squeeze blood from a turnip with his city’s hockey team. While I’ve sat and talked with Geary, and never met the Mayor, in my heart I don’t believe either fits that caricature. But, that does not mean cash isn’t king.
When I spoke with Geary prior to the start of the season, he candidly shared he had no relationship to hockey before owning the IceMen. He’s not a case of a boyhood dream to be a professional player not panning out. He doesn’t have fond memories of going to games with his dad. He’s not driven to have the best team in the league because he watched his favorite team flounder for years.
Ron Geary is a business man. That is not an insult. He’s a very good one at that. I believe his competitive nature shows in his desire to have a successful team. I also think people are quick to point a finger at him when things don’t go the team’s way. He’s given the people of the tri-state area something to cheer for every winter and that too often is forgotten. He will never look at his team through the eyes of a fan, because he just wasn’t a fan of hockey. He’s a businessman trying to create a good product and ::gasp:: a few dollars to put in his pocket. Neither of which he should be faulted for.
Mayor Lloyd Winnecke
The City of Evansville has everything to gain and very little to lose by having a minor league sports franchise. Building the Ford Center and its opening in 2011 was met with a lot of resistance by the residents of Evansville. The University of Evansville plays basketball games there but that’s the only real tenant. That is, except for the IceMen. The second event to take place at the shiny new facility happened to be opening night for the IceMen that season. During poor seasons, the building still has 36 home games a year that attract thousands of people into downtown Evansville. Anyone that’s been to Evansville knows that it isn’t a metropolis where the streets are filled with cars on any given night otherwise.
Hockey helps create business for the city. That doesn’t mean the City is beholden to give away the Ford Center for free. It’s a very nice facility and a much more comfortable place to watch a hockey game than most other teams in the league have. IceMen fans have plenty of free parking within close walking distance to the arena and utilize the City’s police after the game to direct traffic to accommodate everyone leaving. These are little perks that IceMen fans take for granted but cost the City money. To think that any city is going to give away rent in a newer facility or concession money as everyone’s budget tightens, doesn’t grasp the complexity of what it takes to keep things running.
That leaves us, the fans, caught somewhere in the middle. I liken it to kids that have divorced parents that don’t like each other. Yes, they have to get along enough to make the whole thing work, but in reality it’s the kid who suffers. Just like in a divorce situation, both parties can be right. Everyone has to look out for their best interests while compromising just enough so the whole thing doesn’t fall apart. The fascinating part is that both sides need the fans to make it work. Without fans, the whole conversation is a moot point.
There’s a good chance Mayor Winnecke has no idea why you bring a cowbell to the game. There’s even a chance Ron Geary doesn’t know. They don’t have to. It’s not their role in this. That’s your role. The chants and the dancing, that’s what the hockey fan brings to the relationship. Fans are the kids that have a good time and that good time is what makes a parent happy, if we stick with the metaphor.
Maybe both sides will concede just a little more. Who knows. I do know that all this big kid wants for Christmas, is for both sides to make it work.
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