I was a spry lad of seven years old -- it was the spring of 1983. Other than a few trips to Bush Stadium to watch the Indianapolis Indians, sports weren't really on my radar screen. Adjusting to a new school, figuring out how to write legibly (OK, I never quite mastered that one), enjoying some good tunes (sadly, "Elvira" was the song of choice for our second-grade class) and playing with my train set were the main orders of business.
But one evening, my dad and I jumped into the car and I had no idea where we were going.
By the time we returned home, a whole new world had been opened up to me.
Our car parked in the barns next to a big barn-looking building -- the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. As we walked inside this huge golden structure, I saw something totally new -- a huge, gleaming white sheet of ice, surrounded by walls. Before too long, the PA announcer introduced these guys skating onto that gleaming rink in white, blue and orange as "YOOOOOUR INDIANNNNNAPOLIS CHECKERRRRRRRRRS."
Fans blew airhorns. The action was fast. The goaltenders' equipment fascinated me. The Checkers scored a ton of goals -- I vaguely remember the score being something like 7-2 as they beat the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. And every time they did, the place went nuts. My seven-year-old self had permission to yell and scream and dance and celebrate.
I'm not sure my mother was too happy we went out late on a school night to see a hockey game, but I was.
Suddenly, I couldn't get enough hockey. It was as if a whole new world had been opened to me. I took in everything -- loved the blue and orange uniforms (and although I soon became a Boston Bruins fan, I still have a soft spot for the New York Islanders because of those blue and orange uniforms), took in the names, listened to Rick Heliste broadcast every game I could listen to (fun side note: we would become neighbors later in childhood and had several opportunities to exchange pleasantries). Bruce Affleck, Darcy Regier, Kevin Devine, Kelly Hrudey, Rob Holland, Scott Howson, Paul Boutilier, Garth MacGuigan, Red Laurence, Charlie Skjodt, Ron Handy, Tim Lockridge -- those guys and their names became larger than life to me.
That place became a magnet to me -- even if my trips were infrequent for many years due to that pesky problem of being too young to own a car -- it was always a siren call. I'd stop by and watch horse shows at the Indiana State Fair, just to soak in the building. As a result, so did the game played there. From that night forward, I devoured hockey -- watched it on TV, learned its history, read every book I could find (which wasn't exactly easy in Central Indiana), listened intently as older family members took Nelson Skalbania's name in vain, found out why they did, found out that Wayne Gretzky began his career here, all the while finding out I wasn't supposed to root for him because the Edmonton Oilers were the bad guys to the cadre of Islanders fans in Indianapolis -- which seemed to be legion at the time (and, a decade later, the city was naturally teeming with Chicago Blackhawks fans for the same reason), devoured the history of the Stanley Cup, and of course, watched it get presented every year (or, well, every year until John Ziegler inexplicably gave the U.S. TV rights to SportsChannel America for a few years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thereby forcing me to follow my beloved Bruins on whatever stray radio broadcast I could find as they made multiple deep playoff runs in that time). It's why, as a visitor to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, I was as pleased to see the original Adams Cup on display as anything there, because of what it meant to me (and to my team) as a young hockey fan.
It helped that the Checkers were an atypical minor-league team, where the roster held together for virtually their entire five-year run. It also helped that they were a championship-caliber team.
I've been a part of the hockey scene in Indianapolis ever since -- as a fan, webmaster, historian, author, blogger, off-ice official, newspaper reporter, stats person and fill-in goal judge/video person/public address announcer -- but rarely do I see a game and not think of those teams, those nights as a seven-year-old spent in the Coliseum.
That old barn was built in 1939. Its first event was a hockey game -- the Indianapolis Capitals vs. the Syracuse Stars. It had received a few coats of paint since then, had most of the gigantic glass-block windows rimming the arena above the seats painted over (and, of all colors, brown). The center-hanging scoreboard had long since been replaced by the two boards that hung over the seats at center ice on either side -- I still remember the old FairPlay boards that had been installed for the Pacers whose clocks couldn't go higher than 19:59, so every period would start with 0:00 showing on the clock (and the Merchants Bank ad on one side, a Yellow Pages ad on the other).
It's probably best-known for non-hockey events -- most notably, and sadly, the fatal explosion in 1963 during an Ice Follies show. But it is also known as the home of the Indiana Pacers during their ABA glory days, hosting the Beatles in 1964, and hosting numerous presidential candidates in other years. One of my first dates with my wife was a non-hockey event at the Coliseum -- a Billy Graham Crusade rally/training session. Must be fitting.
But the Coliseum has always been, first and foremost, a hockey arena. It saw some of the game's greats -- Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, Alex Delvecchio, Marcel Pronovost, Harry Lumley, Joe Turner -- pass through its gates in the early years. Luminaries like Eddie Shore and Johnny Bower played as visitors. Later on, Dominik Hasek, Olympic hero Ray LeBlanc and several NHL mainstays like Mike Stapleton, Keith Carney, Warren Rychel, Kellly Hrudey, Gord Dineen, Tony Hrkac and John Carlson would call the Coliseum home. From 1939 until the fateful Halloween explosion in 1963, it had hosted hockey teams in 21 of its first 25 hockey seasons. The Checkers brought hockey back in 1982, and it would share Market Square Arena with local hockey teams until 1998, when the Indianapolis Ice moved there permanently for what would become a 14-year run that spanned three franchises in three leagues. Indianapolis has claimed eight hockey championships -- the AHL Capitals in 1942 and 50, the IHL Chiefs in 1958, the CHL Checkers in 1982 and 83, the IHL Ice in 1990, CHL Ice in 2000 and USHL Ice in 2009 -- and all of those teams have called the Coliseum home.
The Coliseum is being gutted and completely rebuilt into a new, modern arena with a double-decked seating bowl, an elevated concourse between the two seating decks -- allowing for locker room areas to be separated from the fans. It will certainly be more comfortable for fans, media, players and, well, everyone else.
The Coliseum was never a beautiful arena -- it was a big barn with a low-slung seating bowl that went about halfway up, but was also built to accommodate a horse show ring, so it had an awkward outer wall that pushed the seats farther from the action, especially in the end zones. But, other than a few coats of paint, new seats from the RCA Dome and some new scoreboards, the interior hadn't changed much from the time it opened in 1939. It never had great sightlines. And the Ice did everything they could to accommodate media, scouts and game workers, with a small press area at the top of the seats for media and radio announcer, and a small crow's nest above each scoreboard for statisticians and video personnel that required a long climb up a metal staircase so steep, it was almost a ladder (and offered no view of any scoreboard, requiring the official scorekeeper to call down to rink level to get the clock time). The acoustics were notoriously poor, for years it had no air conditioning -- causing fog to form over the ice on warm nights.
But it was a charming building because of that. It was like your grandmother's living room -- a place where you always felt at home, where you always felt welcome. It has drawn me like a magnet for the better part of the last three decades, and while Market Square Arena might have been the perfect hockey building (with some of the best sightlines you'll see at any rink anywhere), the Coliseum was a unique one. The single concourse meant fans could interact with players or watch them start warming up. Every trip from the media room into the rink proper was met with smiles from the doorkeepers.
Last Sunday, May 6, 2012, we saw the final game ever at the "original" Coliseum. The Ice will move to Bankers Life Fieldhouse -- with a few games sprinkled in at Pan Am Plaza -- over the next two seasons, into an NHL-caliber arena with more amenities than a fan, media member or game worker could ask for.
And, while that final game wasn't what I remembered -- all the victories of my childhood were left with a close loss to a great Green Bay Gamblers team that finished with a goalmouth scramble that nearly led to the game-tying goal for the home team -- it was a memorable evening. At previous games over the last few weeks of the season, I soaked in the building one more time, taking pictures of the long stairway into the crow's nest that I had climbed many times, the views of the rink from all angles, the concourses and more. But this time, the memories came back. I sat rinkside as the game ended, looked up and spotted the general spot where my father introduced me to this great game. I closed my eyes and saw Darcy Regier patrolling the blueline, Garth MacGuigan and Red Laurence scoring goals, Kevin Devine winning a fight. As my voice billowed through the arena, wishing fans a safe drive home, my path out of the rink took me to the spot where I remembered walking in during a 1984 game that I had begged my parents to take me to, because Kelly Hrudey was back in Indy on a rehab assignment. The Tulsa Oilers' goaltender was John Vanbiesbrouck. Both would play many years in the NHL, and both would lead their teams to the Cup final. I still remember that game being a well-played 3-3 tie, and remember walking into the rink and seeing -- through one of the openings at rink level from the concourse -- Vanbiesbrouck make a save as we belatedly walked into the arena and headed down the aisle to take our seats.
I remembered Nathan Perrott scoring an OT goal for the Ice in 1999 at the far end of the rink, giving a team that had gotten hot at the right time just to get into the postseason a shot to win its first playoff series in nine years (and, at the same end, remembering the sinking feeling that we had when Stan Drulia scored off a turnover to eliminate the Ice and end their final IHL season). Looked over at the end boards behind the west net and saw Tulsa's Doug Lawrence spread-eagled across the exit door, not allowing the linesman to escort him out in a crazy 300+ penalty minute third period of a clinching Ice victory ... and how Jamie Morris was a brick wall during that entire championship run ... the din of 6,003 fans through my radio when the Ice clinched the Turner Cup in 1990, and sitting in my bed (couldn't convince the parents to go on a school night) and pumping my fists in the air as our team had won a title. I looked across the ice at the bench one more time to see where Charlie Skjodt, one of the architects of those early games that hooked me on hockey as a youth, was now coaching the newest generation of hockey players.
Today, I often bring my 5-year-old son to Indiana Ice games, and he is already becoming a fan. His fandom will likely include a new Coliseum, which will be very spiffy in time for its 75th anniversary, and his memories will likely involve a host of new names.
A lot of memorable players graced that ice. But there will always be a soft spot for those early 1980s Indianapolis Checkers and the barn they called home for turning me on to this great game and creating a lifelong fan.