The Indy Fuel might be new on the pro hockey scene, but the ECHL expansion franchise wasted little time immersing itself in the local youth hockey community.
Co-owners Sean Hallett (also CEO) and Jim Hallett (chairman) believed that growing the Fuel’s fan base and supporting the youth hockey community go hand in hand.
Through one season, both sides of that symbiotic relationship have delivered.
The Fuel ownership group started out with a commitment of providing $500,000 to local youth hockey associations over the next five years, and the even loftier goal of helping double youth participation in the area over the next decade.
“I think many people would say that it’s very ambitious, but there are some passionate people that love the sport that are in Indianapolis,” said Lee Dicklitch, the Fuel’s vice president of operations and fan experience. “We’re very fortunate in that regard. We’re still so new, an organization still in our inaugural season, so we’ve got a lot to learn, a lot to continue to grow upon. We’re trying to do a better job researching, and comparing ourselves to other teams out there, the other ECHL teams, AHL teams and NHL teams [and how they interact with their local youth scenes]. That’s still a work in progress.”
The money that they’re pledging comes from a 50/50 split-the-pot raffle that the Fuel have at every home game. There is also a between-periods promotion where a youth player takes a shot from center ice at a small opening covering the net, and if the player scores, he or she will earn an additional $50,000 for the local youth programs.
“We do a shoot-the-puck promotion similar to what the Blackhawks do, since they’re our NHL affiliate,” Dicklitch said. “We kind of took a page out of their book in terms of a tradition that’s been around for many years, and then we put our own twist on it. If that kid would hit the shot, we would donate $50,000 on behalf of the Indy Fuel to Central Indiana Youth Hockey. We do those things every night, along with the split-the-pot 50/50.”
Another way in which the Fuel has engaged with the youth hockey community is by designating one youth team per home game to be showcased, and a player on that team skates out on the ice before the game to plant the Fuel’s racing flag.
The club’s efforts are appreciated.
“They’re trying real hard to make that connection with the youth leagues,” acknowledged Mark Schumacher, the mites coach-in-chief of the local Coliseum Youth Hockey League. “Their mites-on-ice program, where they have mite players come out and play on the ice between periods, I think, has been a big success. We’ve done it multiple times. I think one time was with the Hanson brothers, which was kind of a riot, and then just last week, we did it and John Harrington, from the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, was in attendance.”
Schumacher’s home rink is right next door to the Indiana Farmers Coliseum, where the Fuel play, and even that proximity has likely helped spark some interest as well.
"Just being right next door to their arena, I think the fact that they’ve played games at times when we’ve had practices and such, you’ve had adults and kids go by our arena when we’ve been active, and I think their mere presence has been real good from that standpoint,” Schumacher said. “You can park your car, walk by our youth arena and go to the Coliseum and peek in there and see us practicing on Wednesday nights, and they’ve had a few Wednesday night games.”
There have also been promo videos played on the arena’s video boards at games urging fans to get involved in youth hockey.
“I know they’ve put USA Hockey videos up on the board during the pregame and maybe even between periods,” added Schumacher. “They weren’t necessarily promoting our league specifically, but just another way to talk about youth hockey in front of thousands of people.”
Every little bit helps and has been important in connecting the Fuel with the area’s youth hockey scene. So far it’s working great.
“It’s the moms and dad that come out, and the kids will help carry the signs,” Dicklitch said, “and we try to make sure that we’re involving them, hopefully in a dynamic way, that a lot of the kids have a great experience, stay involved and then continue to follow the Fuel in the future — because those are the kids that we’ll need to support us, and when they grow up and they have kids, we hope they’re big Fuel fans.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photos provided by Lee Dicklitch.