Monday, June 9, 2014

Indy's title teams: The 1990 Ice

This is the third in a nine-part series looking back at Indianapolis' championship-winning hockey teams. This feature will appear periodically through the offseason. Previously: the 2009 Indiana Ice, the 2000 Indianapolis Ice. 

The Indianapolis Ice had a fresh start in the summer of 1989. After spending their first year as an independent, the team announced a primary affiliation with the Chicago Blackhawks, meaning the Ice would be a team full of NHL prospects much like the Checkers had been a half-decade before.
Bruce Cassidy hoists the Turner Cup in 1990. (Indpls. Ice)

The local fans knew they’d be seeing players on their way to the NHL. Little did they know the season they’d get on the way there. 

The 1989-90 Indianapolis Ice will go down as one of the great teams in IHL history, and also one of the great ones in local hockey lore. They went 53-21-8, won the IHL’s West Division championship by a whopping 31 points, and were hardly touched in a playoff run that saw them sweep the Muskegon Lumberjacks and win the Turner Cup – the city’s first hockey championship in seven years.

It was a given this would be a whole new team. The 1988-89 Ice had been an independent, and with no NHL affiliate to feed them players, put together a squad of veteran scorers and tough guys – in some cases, in the same package – that evoked memories of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers. But on the ice, they hadn’t been successful, winning just 26 games.

The path to success in the late-1980s IHL was to be a team’s primary affiliate, and the Ice-Blackhawks marriage would last the next nine years. Player-wise, the Ice would feature faces new to Indianapolis, but not to the IHL. They’d inherit a veteran roster, many of whom had put together a 102-point season for the Saginaw Hawks the year before. The Saginaw franchise disbanded, but many players had significant minor-league experience as they waited their turn in Chicago – which had been stockpiling a solid list of prospects to provide depth for a team that was beginning to be one of the Campbell Conference’s top contenders. 

Nineteen players who would suit up for the Ice in 1989-90 had played for Saginaw the year before – including players who would become the team’s corer, scorers Brian Noonan and Sean Williams, defenseman Bruce Cassidy, tough guy Warren Rychel, goaltenders Jim Waite, Ray LeBlanc and Darren Pang, and players such as Mike Rucinski, Jari Torkki, Mario Doyon, Jim Playfair, Ryan McGill and Dan Vincelette. Not only that, but Darryl Sutter came from Saginaw as the Ice’s head coach, beginning a coaching career that would take him to the Stanley Cup two decades later.

It took this group of Ice a few games to find itself – it lost its first four games. The new era began on Oct. 6, 1989 at the Coliseum, as a nearly-packed house of 7,307 saw former Checker Byron Lomow beat Jim Waite in the sixth round of a shootout and beat the Ice 4-3. Everett Sanipass had two goals for the Ice in that game. The next night, Mike Berger – who would become a championship-winning defenseman for the Ice in the CHL a decade later – tallied his fourth point with a goal at 1:31 of overtime to beat the Ice 5-4 in Fort Wayne.

Finally, the team broke through in its fifth game, a 6-2 win over Phoenix at the Coliseum on Oct. 21. Mike Rucinski assisted on three goals, Sean Williams and Warren Rychel scored two, Jari Torkki had the game-winner and the Ice peppered David Littman with 41 shots in the win. Once they got going, they wouldn’t stop. After starting 0-2-2, the Ice won 10 of their next 11, and 17 of their next 20, to open the year 17-5-3. The Phoenix win was followed with high-scoring wins over Salt Lake (6-4 behind two goals each from Brian Noonan and Mario Doyon) and Milwaukee (7-2, with Torkki, Rucinski and Ryan McGill scoring three goals in a 60-second span, and Torkki putting forth a four-point game). The wins continued, both with strong offensive displays and also defensive masterpieces. On the first two nights of December, Jim Waite shut out Salt Lake 1-0 and 2-0. Jari Torkki scored the game’s lone goal on Dec. 1, as the Ice outshot the Golden Eagles 56-14. The next night, Waite stopped 19 shots while Mike Eagles and Bruce Cassidy did the scoring. A day later, in Peoria, the Ice won 5-2, with Bob Bassen and Warren Rychel each tallying Gordie Howe hat tricks with a goal, an assist and a fighting major each. On Dec. 5, Waite went back between the pipes and saw his scoreless streak end at 162:25, but Torkki scored his second goal of the game at 2:47 of overtime to win 2-1 in Phoenix.

Jim Waite (

On Dec. 17, Ray LeBlanc shut out Milwaukee 3-0 behind two goals from Everett Sanipass for his first shutout as an Iceman and the team’s second. That gave the team an 18-6-3 record and buttressed a loss to Fort Wayne the previous night.

Top goaltender Jim Waite got called up to Chicago in early December, and the Ice would go through a bit of a rough patch at midseason – they would go 7-9 from the end of December through January – but there were some highlights. Brian Noonan’s OT goal completed a hat trick and a 3-2 win over Peoria on Jan. 5. The next night, LeBlanc had 19 saves in a 4-0 win over Milwaukee in front of 8,567 at the Coliseum. Waite returned on Jan. 10, and three nights later, backstopped a wild 6-5 win over Kalamazoo. Trailing 5-2 with five minutes left, Dan Vincelette, Jim Johansson and Mario Doyon scored three minutes apart to tie the game, and then Torkki scored the game-winner to beat the Wings 6-5.

When the calendar turned to February, the Ice got on a roll again. Waite shut out Milwaukee 7-0 on Feb. 2, with Noonan scoring his second hat trick in three games and Williams tallying a four-goal night. It touched off a 12-1-2 month that sealed the division title for the Ice. Things continued in March, where Waite had back-to-back shutouts on March 14 (Kalamazo) and 16 (Milwaukee) and a 136:19 shutout string. Noonan had two goals and two assists in a March 21 7-3 win over Milwaukee and a March 30 6-5 win at Salt Lake. The regular season was capped on April 8 with a 4-3 shootout win over Fort Wayne, sending the Ice into the postseason, where they would face the fourth-place Peoria Rivermen.

Noonan finished the regular season with 40 goals and 36 assists. He was one of seven 20-goal scorers on the team, joining Rucinski (28), Williams (27), Torkki (25), Rychel (23), Bassen (22) and Johannson (22). Cassidy had a 57-point year from the blueline, with 11 goals and 46 assists. The goaltending was also spectacular, with Waite going 34-14-4 with a 2.53 GAA. LeBlanc was 15-6-2 with a 3.19 GAA, and Darren Pang came down from Chicago late in the season to post a 2.54 GAA and go 4-1-2 in seven starts.

The Ice-Rivermen clash looked like a mismatch on paper, and it was on the ice. Williams had two second-period goals and Rucinski three assists in a 6-4 win over Peoria in Game 1 of the first-round series on April 11. The Ice lost Game 2 thanks to four second-period goals by the Rivermen, but they quickly seized control of the series in Game 3. The Ice scored five times in the first 12:22 against Pat Jablonski in an eventual 7-1 Game 3 victory. Mike Stapleton got things started with a power play goal at 1:24, Bob Bassen followed with a shorthanded goal 1:12 later, Williams scored two power play goals and Mike Eagles had an even-strength goal in the period. Williams finished the night with two goals and two assists. Bassen had two goals and Dave Bassegio assisted on three. Goaltender Darren Pang, who made just 14 saves, got his first playoff win. Another five-goal period broke out in Game 4 – this time the second period of a 5-1 win. Noonan, Stapleton, Mike McNeill and Eagles scored goals less than four minutes apart, giving the Ice a 4-0 lead 5:17 into the second. Eagles added his second goal later on in the period. He also had an assist for a three-point game. The Ice finished off the series at the Coliseum with a 3-2 Game 5 win, with Jim Johannson scoring the tiebreaking goal with 3:20 left, beating Pat Jablonski.
That put the Ice into the semifinals against the second-place Salt Lake Golden Eagles. While the Ice put together a 114-point regular season, the Eagles tallied just 83 points and finished second. They had handled Milwaukee in the opening round. Playoff games against Salt Lake were nothing new to local hockey fans – the Checkers and Eagles had a spirited rivalry in the early 1980. This series was the last step between the Ice and the Turner Cup Final.

Due to ice availability in Indianapolis, the series started in Salt Lake City. The Ice fell behind twice in the opening period, but Noonan scored twice to answer each goal. With 8:20 left in the third, Eagles beat Ken Guennette with his fifth goal of the playoffs to give the Ice a 4-3 lead, which Waite preserved in net. Salt Lake won Game 2 despite an Ice rally from a two-goal deficit, when Tim Sweeney beat Pang at 2:17 of overtime. That sent the series back to Indy 1-1.

It would also be the Ice’s last loss. The Ice tore through three games in Indianapolis, winning Game 3 by a 5-1 score thanks to three assists from Bob Bassen. Waite made just 12 saves for a shutout in Game 4, with Torkki and Rucinski scoring power play goals 1:16 apart in the first period to provide the scoring in a 2-0 win. Noonan ended the series with an overtime goal at 2:33 in Game 5 to win the game 3-2 and the series 4-1.

That set up a Turner Cup Final between the league’s two best teams during the year – Eastern Division champion Muskegon and Western champion Indianapolis. The teams were separated by two points in the standings, and what appeared to be a great series looked to be on the horizon.
Instead, the Ice dominated. They seized home-ice advantage immediately a warm May 9 night in Muskegon. Craig Channell – a late-season pickup – scored unassisted at 11:31 of the first. Even though the Lumberjacks answered, Mike McNeill had an unassisted goal at 15:30 of the second to give the Ice a lead, and Mike Eagles’ power play goal made it 3-1 early in the third. Sean Williams scored shorthanded late, and Ryan McGill added an empty-netter in a 5-2 victory. Again, the Ice dominatedthe territory, outshooting Muskegon 40-24.

The Ice took a two game lead two nights later in the Coliseum, rallying from behind to win 4-2, with Mike Stapleton and Warren Rychel scoring power play goals in the third period to lead the comeback.
Game 3 would be the pivotal game of the series. The Ice trailed 3-0 going into the third, and 4-1 halfway through the period. The comeback started when Rucinski scored with 8:30 left. Torkki followed 67 seconds later, and with 19 seconds left, Stapleton was hauled down from behind on a breakaway. He beat Bruce Racine on the ensuing penalty shot to tie the game, and McNeill won it at 11:40 of overtime, assisted by Playfair and Stapleton. Darren Pang made 29 saves for the win, which put the Ice on the cusp of a championship.

The Game 3 victory might have broken the Lumberjacks. A crowd of 6,003 crammed into the Coliseum on a Monday night to see their team win a championship. The first period saw scoring chances – each team had four power plays -- but no goals. Waite had to come up big, but made 11 saves. Eagles got the scoring started at 5:43 of the second, scoring his 10th of the playoffs off a feed from Williams. Less than four minutes later, Williams scored on a feed from Rucinski, and the celebration was on. Muskegon 30-goal man Dan Frawley made it close later in the second, but the Ice’s airtight defense – the team had allowed 67 fewer goals than anyone else in the league – rose to the occasion. The Ice had to kill off three power plays after taking the 2-1 lead, but Waite only had to make nine saves in the third period. As the final minutes ticked down, the Coliseum crowd was going berserk, close to witnessing a championship on home ice. They counted down the final seconds, and the Ice began to celebrate. The team joyously skated the wedding-cake-tiered Turner Cup around the Coliseum ice – and later, took it around several Indianapolis nightspots in a legendary celebration that saw the Turner Cup end up much worse for the wear.

The Ice had plenty of playoff heroes – Eagles had 10 goals and 10 assists. Williams had eight goals, including the championship-winner. Cassidy assisted on 10 goals. Stapleton had a 19-point playoff with nine goals and 10 assists, and Noonan had six goals and nine assists. Waite – voted the IHL’s top goaltender during the regular season – was also spectacular in the playoffs. But the playoff MVP went to Mike McNeill, who had six goals and four assists, but solid three-zone play as the Ice went 12-2 in the postseason and won the championship. 

More hardware would follow – not only was Waite the top goaltender, but Sutter was named Coach of the Year and team president Ray Compton Executive of the Year. Cassidy, Waite and Bassen were First Team All-Stars and Noonan a Second Team All-Star.

The team would go through a few changes – Sutter would be promoted to the NHL the next year and a handful of others would follow, but the core of Williams, Noonan, Stapleton, Johannson, Rychel, McNeill, Waite and Eagles would remain. Future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek joined the team for the following season, but the Ice were unable to repeat their magic. They had a solid 48-29-5 regular season, but lost in seven games to Fort Wayne in an epic first-round playoff series. The Ice would win a division title in 1997 – again, with Waite a part of the team – but the IHL would go through significant changes in the middle part of the decade, and the team wouldn’t recapture its championship form before leaving the league in 1999.

But the memories of the 1989-90 Turner Cup championship and the Ice’s dominant run will remain.

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