Alright boys and girls, so we’re 16 games into the season. Everybody is in the swing of things and teams are starting to develop their identity. Some are winners, some are having a challenging year and then there’s the Indy Fuel, a team which has slowly sunk since their launch, having shown very few signs of improvement.
When the Fuel came to town in 2014, head coach Scott Hillman brought in players like Garett Bembridge, Rhett Bly, and Kyle Stroh. All played upwards of 40 to 50 games for the Fuel in their first season. In that season, the team finished with a 31-30-4-7 record, just barely above .500 and missed the playoffs by a mere three points; the closest Indy Fuel has ever been to playoff hockey.
In Hillman’s second year, the team started very well, above .500 until mid-November, when they lost nine straight. After the team got back on track, there was never more than three straight losses before Indy fired Hillman on March 7, 2015 and replaced him with current head coach Bernie John. John served as the team’s assistant coach and was the assistant coach of the USHL Indiana Ice for a year before that. After taking over, his fast-paced, run-and-gun Fuel team missed the playoffs by 12 points in 2015-16. In just over a full season behind the bench, John has compiled a 32-57-7 record.
If you look at the graph of former Indianapolis hockey teams, The Fuel are on the same path as the 1999 CHL Ice, except for the championship. The third seasons for both the Fuel (23 wins last year) and the Ice (20 wins in 2002-03) are comparable, though, it should be noted that Rod Davidson was fired after not qualifying for the playoffs at the end of that season. It remains to be seen if John will share that same fate.
The noticeable trend in the graph above is the fact that the CHL Ice rebounded after their dismal third season, led by Ken McRae. Yet, the Fuel are continuing the same downward trend to start this season. Another little tidbit to keep in mind, three out of the four teams listed won a championship within their first five years of existence, something the Fuel are not likely to do.
While there is still time to turn the season around and compete for a playoff position, the window is closing quickly in a competitive Central Division, getting off to a seven-game losing skid to start the season certainly was not the ideal scenario.
Heading into the campaign, the mindset from both coaches was that this isn’t an expansion team anymore, it’s time to make the playoffs and compete for a Kelly Cup, yet four wins in 16 games screams of a team that will be golfing in late April, rather than competing for a Kelly Cup championship.
In an October article in the Indiana Business Journal, the Halletts cited the Indy Eleven’s (soccer) playoff run (Semifinal round in Indy was on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 3:00 p.m.,) the Cubs World Series championship, and Presidential Election as reasons for a dip in attendance. The odd thing about that is every single event happened before Thanksgiving 2016, and by then, the Fuel were off to another poor start. Indy finished last season in the middle of the pack with respect to attendance, averaging close to 3,600 per game. Through eight games this year, attendance of Fuel games has dropped 4.6 percent according to figures provided by the ECHL.
With so many options out there for fans to spend their hard-earned money, it is incumbent upon the Hallett’s to find a leader & a group of players who will perform at their best every single night. Losses will happen, so will losing streaks, but if fans see signs of improvement in a franchise, they will keep coming back.
I won’t question the leadership on this team because captain Michael Neal consistently scores goals and fights for this Indy Fuel team. He wants to win.
“We know we can be a lot better,” Neal said in the team post-game recap. “Coach has put in a lot of good things for us to do. It’s on the players. We’ve got to buy in, guys have to do the right things. It’ll come – you could see that in the first period. We were getting pucks to the net, getting pucks out of our zone, speed through the neutral zone. It showed.”
If it is a question of players buying into the game plan, then get new players. Do some research, move players around in different lines and put together a lineup that will compete for three periods. That said, if they aren’t buying into the game plan because of the people who are putting together the game plan, there’s a whole other issue.
If chemistry in the locker room is an issue, it’s time to find the sour players and move in another direction. No matter how good a team is, if there is a problem with locker room chemistry, even if it is one player, it has the potential ruin an entire season.
Having a winning team in a minor league is vital to a team’s survival. Of course, sponsors and advertisements are helpful, but putting butts in seats is the most vital part of any franchise. No matter how nice your facilities are and how well you treat your players, no player wants to play in a losing environment and an empty barn.